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.
“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:
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.