Beyond Dioramas: Inviting Students to Read and Read and Read

There have been some dramatic moments for my daughter in 4th grade this year.

Aside from her grade-stress meltdown that I wrote about, there was also the drama of the lost reading log.

My daughter’s class is nearing the end of a reading contest. Since some time in December, students have been logging pages read (in English and Spanish). Students get double credit for every page they read in their second language. Two students will get recognized at the half time of an upcoming women’s college basketball game–the student who read the most and the student who improved the most (meaning that over the course of the contest read more than s/he had been reading prior to the contest).

As an avenue for encouraging students to read A LOT, this has worked very well, at least for my kiddo. She has very diligently timed her reading and counted her pages and added everything up and carried the reading log from school to home and back again in her backpack every day. She has always been a reader, but I think this has incentivized reading for her in a positive way. She’s well over two thousand pages in English and several hundred in Spanish.

And last Monday afternoon, the reading log came up missing. She couldn’t find it in her backpack, she couldn’t figure out where it was, and she was distraught. All those pages read and logged, gone, and the end of the contest was only a week away. She was overwhelmed at the prospect of catching up in just a few days.

We talked through her day at school that afternoon and tried to figure out just exactly where the reading log disappeared so she could retrace her steps the next day. We talked about how she could ask her teachers for help. We wondered what we her options might be to still participate in the contest if the reading log never showed up.

And by Thursday, it hadn’t.

But for some reason, at bedtime that night, she wondered if maybe her reading log might be in her backpack after all. So we turned on the light in her room and pulled her backpack up onto her bed and started to look.

When we found it (in the middle of a stack of papers), we yelled with delight and cheered. We couldn’t believe it! We had even looked through the backpack a few days before and didn’t find it. (Yes, lesson here about keeping one’s backpack clean–I’m certain there are other presumably lost items in the depths of her backpack. And probably several rocks from the playground and a few sticks that she thinks look like magic wands.)

But the moment struck me with a realization. We were celebrating that we had found the evidence of all the reading she had done over the last two months, the pages consumed and the minutes spent. The record is considerable (and literally way more than my high school students are reading for my class… something I brought up to them this past week as we launched into independent reading for the rest of the semester). She is reading, a lot, and the reading log is tangible evidence of that. She is proud of her work and was upset at the prospect of having lost that record. The moment we found the reading log was nothing short of catharsis.

So a reading assignment that required her to read widely, to follow her interests, to read the books that appealed to her–to simply READ–truly engaged her in that task. And an assignment in conjunction with a book her class read together (that I wrote about earlier) and that asked her to bring to life four scenes from the story with construction paper and cardboard and glue didn’t hold her attention in the same way. She FORGOT she hadn’t finished the diorama until 30 minutes before leaving for school on the day it was due (inspiring the grade stress breakdown I wrote about earlier), whereas the moment the reading log showed up missing (only missing in the depths of her backpack apparently), she was beside herself with grief.

The diorama scene depicting Benjamin Franklin's electricity experiment with a kite and a key.
The diorama scene depicting Benjamin Franklin’s electricity experiment with a kite and a key

I admit that the diorama was kind of awesome, especially this scene. See the kite and the clouds and the lightening bolt and Benjamin Franklin standing there with his son? There’s a shrinky dink key hanging on the kite string right by Franklin’s hand (hard to see in the photo).

I think that the artist in my child got legitimate joy out of this project, and that alone makes it worthwhile. But I’m not sure about how it helped her as a reader. Granted, I do not know what the goal was of this project–it very well may have been simply about learning details about Benjamin Franklin’s life–something that the task certainly did achieve. I do not mean for any of this to be some sort of criticism of my kid’s teachers. Her teachers are awesome and support her in so many ways and give her umpteen invitations to engage as a learner–my kid is truly thriving at her school. I am so grateful for the experiences her school has provided for her.

But the contrast between my daughter’s heartbreak over the loss of her reading log and the lack of even remembering she had to finish up her diorama made me wonder.

Being the teacher geek that I am, any story out of any classroom becomes an opportunity for me to reflect over my own practice.

So this made me wonder about what kinds of things I’m asking my students to do in the name of reading. Am I inviting them to read and read and read some more to the point where they would be heartbroken if they somehow lost the tangible evidence of all of the work they had done? Or am I asking them to do tasks alongside books that they literally forget about until the last possible moment?

And how am I encouraging them to think deeply about what they read? To make meaningful connections to their lives? To ask questions across texts? To reflect their own lives off of the experiences of a character in a book? To read to seek answers to the deepest questions of their hearts? To read to find the deepest questions of their hearts? To read to feel connected to the human experience? To read to see through the eyes of others? How am I inviting my students to read for these purposes?

And in Twitter recently, I came across this:

I want my students to be reading deeply. I thought about this last week as they discussed The Road and The Great Gatsby. How do I know that they’re reading deeply by listening to what they say in these student-led discussions? It comes in the questions they ask of the text and of each other. It comes in every time I hear one of them refer to a specific moment in the text to support something they’re saying. It comes in the surprising connections, like yesterday when my 5th hour class was discussing whether or not money can buy happiness and a student wondered if Gatsby is addicted to Daisy in the way that people get addicted to drugs. This was one of the best re-connections to a text after a tangential discussion thread I’ve ever seen. And my other class tried to really figure out the world of The Road as a metaphor for the path we are all traveling on our own in our lives. One student was even wondering about the patterns she was seeing for what happens to the boy and the man when they leave the road in the book and what that means with the metaphor–our moments of divergence from the paths we follow are what help us to really learn and grow and question? That has been the case for the boy in the book, and we started to wonder how much his experiences speak for our own.

But there are times when what they say does not suggest they are reading deeply. Sometimes they make only cursory mention of the text, or only say something similar to what the person before said, or only rely on details that they could pick up in class without ever even cracking the book themselves. How am I failing these students, not inviting them to read deeply? Not finding a way to make it so that they might be heartbroken if they don’t?

Not sure how to answer these questions, but I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s a matter of serving up the right invitation to the right student at the right moment that leaves them with an unquenchable desire to open up the pages of a book (and then another, and then another) to read.

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