But What If We Try?

My biggest experiment of the year involves sophomores reading books of their own choosing. I’ve noticed that student enthusiasm for reading frequently nosedives in about 8th grade, maybe a little earlier for boys. This trend has been even more marked in recent years as the first wave of students educated in the standardized testing frenzy arrives in high school. Even well-intentioned students are reading less and seem to be thinking less critically. That’s just unacceptable.

  Then I realized I was part of the problem. Kelly Gallagher’s important book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It points out that “Schools are limiting authentic reading experiences.” Our school is very good at teaching literature, and I think we understood that to mean we were teaching students to be good readers. Uh, no. We were doing the noble work of transmitting the Western literary canon, but we were not doing a very good job at all of guiding students toward viewing and experiencing reading as a pleasurable, even joyful experience.

I started reading more about the problem of students not reading for pleasure. Important contributors to my thinking were literacy experts Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne. Their books (The Book Whisperer and Reading Ladders, respectively) made the case that when students choose their own books, they are not only more passionate about reading, but they also become more sophisticated readers. Passionate and sophisticated readers sound a lot better to me than uninspired, robotic readers, so I knew it was time to try something.

For years I never read much Young Adult literature. I don’t say that with pride. My own pleasure reading was geared toward … my own pleasure. Then a couple of things happened. I attended my first NCTE convention in 2008 in San Antonio. The publishers in the exhibit hall loaded me up with free copies of YA titles. Some of them looked pretty good. I started reading. Somehow I dialed into the pleasantly omnipresent chattering of the venerable Paul W. Hankins who leaves a trail of great ideas about YA books and titles wherever he goes in person or online. I made it a personal goal to become more familiar with the world of YA literature. And Holy Cow! There are some great things going on in the world of YA lit!

So now it was time to bring this to my students. After consulting with Donalyn, Teri, Paul, and my on-site colleague Emily Hill, I took a leap of faith. Each day students would read a book of their choice for the first ten minutes of class. If they brought a book and read it, they would earn one point in the grade book. If they didn’t bring a book or didn’t read it, they didn’t get the point that day.

So, each day begins with me holding the book I’m currently reading, and we all hold up our books. I scan to be sure everyone has a book, write our ending time on the board, and then we read for about ten minutes. Some of us sit on the floor. Most students stay in their desks, and it’s absolutely silent for those minutes. When the time is up, I say something like “If you can find your way to a good stopping place, we’ll go on to the next thing.” On many days we also talk about our books or other book-related ideas, such as web sites like Goodreads or Your Next Read, or if anyone has any updates on the Hunger Games casting.

“Literature” did not go out the window. Kelly Gallagher suggests a 50/50 approach. Make it a goal for 50% of the students’ reading to be based on personal choice and 50% based on academic needs. So, in addition to ten minutes of reading a day, we also completed Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Willa Cather’s My Antonia and four other Cather short stories during first semester.

Did it work? Did it matter? On our semester final exam, I asked students to reflect on the reading they had completed during the semester. After they left, I sat at my desk and read their thoughts, and I could feel my throat lump get bigger and some mysterious moisture begin in the region of my eyes. Those kids got it. Something was happening.

Some excerpts:

“Freshman year I read maybe 5 books of my own choice the entire year. This year, I have at least tripled that number in one semester. Like when I was little, reading the books I enjoy has become a priority.”

“These adventures have reminded me how much I love slipping away into another world. A world where I don’t have to think about all of my homework, arguments with friends, whether or not I’ll make the school musical and why all of the sudden so many people that I love are dying.”

“I love reading in class so much I sometimes will pull out my book immediately when I sit down in class so I can get more than those 10 promising minutes.”

“Being able to see what my peers and my teacher are reading helps me to choose my next book to read. Because of this, I also realized that I had many Barnes & Noble gift cards just laying around after past birthdays, unused, so I just went on an online book shopping spree.”

“In general, I don’t really think about reading at home as a priority unless it’s for school. I mean, if it doesn’t help your grade, then why do it? My attitude changed, however, because at school I would really get into my book in those 10 minutes every day. 50 minutes a week can really help you make way on a book. I get interested and then I want to read at home. It’s really that simple.”

“This semester I have probably read more books in the past 18 weeks than I have ever read in that time period. Reading for ten minutes in class not only helped me read more, but it also got me more interested in books, and made me more motivated to read outside of school.”

“At the end of the day I look forward to getting home and finding out what will happen next in my book. I’m very happy that I love to read now because it helps me in my other classes as well.”

“I never used to be much of a reader but Ellen Hopkins’s interesting format and topics make me have a certain difficulty putting down her books.”

“I’m glad I was given back the magic of books once again after being apart and so distant from them after graduating junior high … Re-prioritizing has become an important part of my life ever since because I find myself re-scheduling my time to fit in more books and less TV.”

“I was one of those kids who would Spark Note books we read in class and scan through the pages to understand the gist of what was going on in the story. To be honest, it worked perfectly fine because I still got great grades … I now get wrapped up in books and find it difficult to put them down. In fact, when I’m bored at home, instead of going on Facebook or watching TV, I’ll sit down with my book. It was something as simple as having a teacher encourage me to read a book I wanted, and with no pressure … I have read more books over my first semester of sophomore year than in the last 3 or 4 years.”

“At the beginning of the school year, I was struggling to think of just eight books that I wanted to read, but now I have well over thirty that are on my waiting list. My reading skills have been improved greatly, and I feel like I can interpret things more in depth and quicker. This has caused me to want to read more complex books now, instead of my typical high school girl dramas.”

“Being forced to read books is a major reason why kids my age develop terrible relationships with books in general but this semester has taken me out of that group of kids. I can honestly say that I love reading and there is nothing more soothing in my eyes now than sitting down and drowning my mind in the words of a book I enjoy.”

“In fifth grade I was fifth in my school for the AR reading program. In sixth grade I did not break 100. Ever since 5th grade I have not been much of a reader. Actually, I have absolutely hated reading. The only books I would read were ones that were necessary for school. I was even getting low scores on my reading MAP, ISAT, etc. tests. Not this year. First semester has probably been my greatest reading year ever. Not only am I reading more books, but I am getting more out of them too … So far I have read eight or nine books this year, my most since 5th grade. I do not know what it is that caught my attention, but something did for sure. I really enjoy reading, and, to tell you the truth, sometimes I read a little more than the ten minutes we are supposed to.”

“As I reflect back, I don’t think I’ve ever read this diverse of a book collection since kindergarten. From action-packed thrillers (The Hunger Games) to witty handbooks on religion (Cool Jew) to reading fit for third graders and beyond (The Wimpy Kid books are genius, really), I found that I’ve enjoyed almost every book I read, and also enjoyed the class curriculum books even more knowing that I wouldn’t be reading only one book at a time.”

There are more, but I think I’ll give the last word on this to Hannah via the poem she wrote about her reading during first semester:

A Reflection

This past semester really was great.
I learned many things and saw some truth.
I went to a place several times, and looked inside.
There were items in there.
Short or tall, big or small,
I looked at them.
I picked them up, felt their hard surface,
And saw the images that describe them.
They were books.

I took them home, and read them one by one.
I turned the pages, soaking up the words.
I laughed, smiled, maybe even cried.
I understood, I felt, and my eyes went wide.
When I was done, I returned them and got new ones.
The same cycle, the same old.
But I never got sick of this cycle.

I read a lot, at home and at school.
I go to English class and I’m happy.
For ten minutes every school day, I can just relax.
I don’t think about life or what we are doing in math class.
I just read.
I don’t flip out over homework.
I just read.
This past semester I read a lot of books.
Mysteries, drama, romance, and fiction.
I was in a different world.
For me, reading was life.
So my reading life this past semester was really good.
I hope to keep it that way.

Thank you, Hannah.

So, I tried something. This is maybe even bigger than language arts and reading. When we sense that something isn’t working, we should try something!

What if it might fail? Do it anyway. If it fails, try it a different way.

What if I might get in trouble for it? Do it anyway. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

What if my colleagues don’t want to do try it? Do it anyway. You didn’t get into this line of work just to be an integer in some bureaucratic lowest common denominator.

Thanks for reading this. Your comments and questions are always welcome.

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20 Responses to But What If We Try?

  1. Fran Lo says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Thanks for having the confidence in your kids to let them choose their own books half the time. When they select their books, they read. And since you’ve respected their choice, they’re more willing to respect your choice (when the class reads the same literature together). I do this all the time with my middle school students – lots less Spark notes, lots more genuine reading. :-)

  2. Tony Romano says:

    I love this site, Gary. And I look forward to reading more. I’m not surprised by students’ comments. The books provide the magic, but someone in front of the room has to provide the structure, the permission, the encouragement, and after reading all these wonderful comments about books, I want to be in your class to experience all of this.

    I know I’m my best self when I take time to dip into another world of my choosing, which is usually fiction for me, an equation that non-readers will never understand (I feel sorry for those people). I’m inspired that so many young people in your class have already discovered this transformative power. Please send along my thanks for their reminder about the importance of books (because I can get caught up in the daily grind of lesson plans and grading and turn away from my own ten minutes at times) and for their generous insights.

  3. Penny Kittle says:

    Bravo to you and your students! Great to read their comments and your joy in leading them to new beginnings with books they choose.

  4. graceewhite says:

    Gary,
    As always, you inspire. Let’s continue to entice fellow teachers to step out, take a risk, and experience the power choice gives our students. Your students spoke from the heart, and are taking something from the work of school, and turning it into living work.
    Thank you.

  5. mardie says:

    I love the way you quietly draw students out of their reading zone when it’s time to move on to other things. Your students’ comments are so inspiring. Thanks for reminding me to have students keep a current To-Read list.

  6. DebTyo says:

    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Brooke says:

    Truly Inspiring – Not only your idea to get kids to read but your outlook on venturing into the unknown!!! I can’t wait to share this with others.

  11. Bravo! I’ve been sad for so long about so many students missing out on the sheer joy to be found in reading.

    Long ago I read Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle and reached the same conclusion you did. I put her reading workshop into place at once, and had the same results you did. Astonishing!

    I eventually used almost all of the reading time for books of choice, with mini-lessons and discussion built in, combined with writing, since I was in elementary school and had the kids for longer periods of time than you do. The kids did extremly well at test time, and almost all became true book lovers. It felt wonderful!

    Just a question: That’s a lotta Willa Cather. ;) Could you maybe pull another five minutes or so for the free choice reading? Think it over. :) I predict their reading and thinking skills would benefit even more, the more time you allow.

    Best of luck, and kudos to you!

  12. Mrs. Andersen says:

    I love this post, Gary. I’ve been trying different things since I started teaching because you’re right, it’s worth it and it’s worth changing if it doesn’t go the way you want it to. Your students’ responses are wonderful, especially the poem. I think I’ll do the same thing with my final exam.

  13. Deb Day says:

    Seems like you have hit a cord here. I love this idea. I’ve always been a proponent of choice reading–I hate class novels. I made more time this year for reading because my freshmen HATE to read. Just now are they beginning to ask for “free reading” time. I think I will try your 10 minute idea and see if we can’t get a few more begging for more time. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Beth Shaum says:

    Love! Love! Love!

    As a middle school teacher, I feel like letting kids choose their books is more accepted than it is in high schools. I eventually would like to teach high school so I’m currently doing research on letting high school kids choose their own reading material. Teachers like you, Donalyn, Teri, Penny, and Kelly will be huge references to helping my project come together.

  15. And all from the mouths of babes! Loved reading the words of your students. Bravo to them and bravo to you for making the choice to be different. And what a difference it has made — think how their reading lives have drastically changed now and into their future!

  16. sabra says:

    thanks for directing me here, gary. in RISE, we tried alternate schedules on fridays — reading 25 minutes in 2nd hour every week and shortening classes/passing periods to accommodate that day’s read — but i don’t think it got kids as excited as your sophomores. while some kids read slightly more, many kids often forgot their books and others only read during that one time. the idea of a daily read sounds intriguing and appealing. (maybe i can use fridays for book chat times? to talk about what we’re reading or explore other books? hmmm.i’ll have to think about that.) i like your suggestion that “if it fails, try it i in a different way.” i will.

    as always, thank you.

    oh, and i need to get a copy of gallagher’s book. ya’ll read that as a department when i took my first leave. while i’ve started to apply some of his methodologically to my classes — thanks to chris and russ’s presentation last year — i (ironically) haven’t read him myself yet.

    • Sabra — I have a copy of Readicide on the shelf behind my desk that you’re welcome to grab for as long as you want it. Thanks for reading this and for your comment. G

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  19. skrajewski says:

    I love what you did with your sophomores, Gary! I do a lot of the same with my freshmen! They read the first ten minutes too, and during that time I write down what they are reading and what page they are on (similar form to the one in Penny Kittle’s Book Love). Since my students did book trailers in the first marking period, after the reading time we show one. I like your idea of giving kids time to share what they are reading after that ten minutes too. No matter what book we teachers choose as a whole class novel, they will never like it as much as the ones they choose on their own. I actually went to a workshop where Kelly Gallagher was the presenter, and he actually changed his 50/50 percentage to 80/20, with 80% being choice reading! As for colleagues not willing to try it, that’s what I deal with. I’m the only one in my department who sees the benefit, but I don’t care. I do it anyway! That time we give our students is so important!

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