I’ve been putting off this post, even at one point thought I could just not write it. But I must–this is the weak link in my classroom. I have umpteen ideas and plans about how to help my students become more engaged writers. I’m already building lesson plans in my head. I’m imagining my future students (whom I’ll meet next Friday) as writers, composing powerful texts that means something to them as human beings. (By the way, this is the third and final in a series about the feedback I collected from my students at the end of last year–see here for my post on what my students had to say about how my class helped them as writers and here for my post on what they had to say about the digital tools we used.)
The reading piece, though, flummoxes me a bit. The default for high school ELA teachers is what we’ve experienced as students ourselves: the college professor chose the book, we all read it and came to class ready to discuss, and then we wrote papers about the book. But honestly, I was able to be successful in this model of an English class without actually reading the books. You need only pay close attention to the teacher’s interpretation and there you go–everything you need to say in an essay or on an exam.
I want more as a reading experience for my students. I have always wanted more for my students. And I’ve made important movement away from that more traditional model. There are some important things to achieve through a group of people all reading a book together, so my students and I read one book together each semester and then they choose their own independent reading texts. Those choices are guided by a semester-long research project wherein they are pursuing an answer to an essential question–the one for our class as a whole and related questions they each develop on their own. They present their findings from their reading in their final project presentations. And I’ve been conferencing with them about their reading and keeping rich data on those conversations. This is all great.
But I’m definitely not quite there yet. For teaching writing, I have writing invitations and focus lessons and revision activities galore. For teaching reading, well, I don’t have as much. So far it’s been time to read mostly that I’ve given my students, and choice about what to read, and a dialogue space with me to talk about the reading. These things are working, but not as well as I want them to toward creating the engaged readers I want to send out into the world beyond my classroom.
You can see in the list below the things we did in my classroom last year toward reading. The list is definitely not as long as the list of things we did toward writing (as you can see in my post about that student feedback).
What helped your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it helped)
- reading books on my own that I chose: 79%
- time to read in class: 54%
- reading books together as a class: 54%
- reading at least 2 hours per week: 48%
- whole class discussions about reading: 45%
- conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 42%
- weekly reading update form: 28%
- book talks from the librarian: 23%
- writing about the reading in writer’s notebooks: 18%
- your response group: 14%
- tracking your growth toward reading standards you selected: 11%
I love that at the top of the list here is “reading books on my own that I chose.” Nearly 80% of my students said that helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that didn’t help their growth as readers). This choice reading is so key to creating engaged readers in the high school classroom. And not choice reading as “outside” reading as it often becomes, but choice reading as a centerpiece of the classroom, as THE place where students are doing the lion share of their reading for a course. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to make choice reading that central, and for me it works when I’ve got a long-term research task for a semester that requires students’ choice reading to complete. That provides a focus for title selection, a reason to keep going, and a forum for sharing what they discovered through their reading with their classmates. When I choose all the books and we read them all together at the same pace, it does not place reading at the center of students’ lives as human beings. It places reading as something done to students by a class/teacher and they just need to survive it any way they can (I’m speaking from my own experiences as a student here). I’d rather that my students develop lives as readers, and this means they need to make important choices about what they read.
Next on the list is the reading time–54% of my students said the time provided in class to read helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that did not help their growth as readers). I will continue this. Students learn to value what we spend time in class doing. If reading is important, than we should prove it by reserving precious class time for it. Last year it was one day a week of silent reading. This year it will be 10 minutes every day plus one reading workshop day. This day will sometimes be silent reading of independent book choices and will sometimes be collective reading of shorter shared texts with discussion and explicit instruction in reading strategies. Yes, high school students still need explicit instruction in reading strategies.
As I said above, there are important things to gain from a group of people reading a book together, and 54% of my students identified that the two times we did that did indeed help them as readers. We’ll continue this–first semester we’ll start with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Second semester we’ll start with a selection of novels and the class will either choose one to all read together or we’ll break into groups and read them in book groups. I will have to wait and see what seems best for my classes. A similar percentage of students (48%) indicated that having to read two hours per week outside of class helped them grow as readers and only 9% of them said it did not help them as readers. I think it’s important to have some sort of expectation out there about how much they should be reading outside of school. I have the same expectation for myself–more than two hours though. And I talk with them about the things I need to do to carve out the time. Less Facebook, for instance, gives me more time to read.
Forty-five percent of my students said that whole-class discussions of reading helped them grow as readers. This is something we’ll keep doing, but this tells me I could do a better job at making this more effective. I think that my new-found dedication to the workshop structure each and every day (mini lesson, work time, share time) will help because it will make me more intentional about our purpose each day. When we get to the share time on a reading workshop day, students should be primed and ready to talk after the mini lesson sets them up for what they need to focus on in the reading time.
Forty-two percent of my students said that reading conferences with me helped them as readers. Seems kind of low, but only 10% of them said they didn’t help at all. I really grew to look forward to these conversations with students about their reading. I used a google form to collect thoughts on each conference so that I could build a database of students’ reading experiences throughout the year and track their growth. This I will continue, but I think I’ll simplify the form so it works faster for me–I want to focus on the conversation, not on filling out the form, as I’m talking to my students. One thing I will keep on the form though is a question about whether or not they got their two hours of reading in during the past week. It’s important to check in with students about these kinds of expectations and help them problem solve if they’re having a difficult time finding the space to read.
The last few things on the list–book talks from the librarian, writing about reading in writer’s notebooks, response groups, and tracking learning toward reading standards–didn’t get a very glowing review from my students. I need to think about these things. The writer’s notebooks and response groups are two things that I will focus on much more intentionally this next year–they were both things that came up rated lower than I had hoped in my students’ feedback on what helped their growth as writers as well. And as for the book talks from the librarian–the point of that was to get possible titles in front of students so they would always have lists of books they wanted to read. There are other ways we can accomplish this–maybe even some sort of student database of books they read and recommend to each other. I could look at Goodreads for this. I’ve done this with a Google Form in the past and I can’t remember why I stopped doing that.
Here are my students’ responses to my question about what didn’t help their growth as readers–I’ve already discussed much of this above so I’ll mostly just put it here for you to see in case you’re curious:
What didn’t help your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it didn’t help)
- your response group 51%
- weekly reading update form: 34%
- tracking your growth toward the reading standards you chose: 32%
- book talks from the librarian: 30%
- writing about reading in writer’s notebooks: 30%
- reading books together as a class: 24%
- whole-class discussions about reading: 16%
- conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 10%
- reading for at least 2 hours per week: 9%
- reading books on my own that I chose: 4%
- time to read in class: 4%
So here’s what I’ve learned: reading went okay last year, but I can improve on how I help my students grow as readers. To do this I will continue with choice reading AND whole-class reading, time to read in class, the expectation of at least two hours a week outside of class reading, and reading conferences. I’ll think about some new ways to get book title options in front of students more frequently and will be more intentional about writer’s notebook work and building response groups where students support each other as readers. I’ll work to be more focused on reading days to provide purpose and structure to conversations we’ll have as a class about our reading. Hopefully this will all help me toward my goal of helping my students to cultivate fuller lives as readers.