In college I took several literature courses ABOUT literature, but we never had instruction on how to TEACH literature. My experience in college went something like this: we would read a book each week, then sit around in a circle discussing it... usually from a Freudian perspective. Then write an essay. That's it.
When I started teaching, I tried the same technique. The problem was, my students didn't care about the symbolism of the ducks in The Catcher in the Rye or the green light in The Great Gatsby. I quickly realized that I was merely a human Cliff's Notes, delivering the plot and basically having a discussion with the handful of students who actually read the book.
I tried quizzes. I gave tests. I assigned projects. I showed movies.
My students simply weren't reading the books I was assigning.
Then, my teaching world was rocked. Two years ago, I read two books about teaching reading: Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.
After reading these books, I slowly began to implement the strategies from the books. This blog post will be the first in a series about how I set-up and run our outside reading assignment. It is a work in progress, but I am confident it is much more effective than the "Human Cliff's Notes" way of teaching reading.
Five rules to get started:
1. Allow students to choose what they read
This is a huge paradigm shift for many teachers. I will admit that I am a control freak in many ways. I believed that I was the paid professional, so I should control what students read and write. However, I have discovered that it is much more powerful when students get to choose and have ownership over the books they are reading.
When I look across the room at the books my students are reading, I see a wide variety of books. Some students are reading The Hunger Games series. Some are reading graphic novels. I even have students reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice. Whoda thunk?!
The kicker? They are actually reading! Does it really matter that all students read the same book at the same time? I would argue no. As long as they are reading, that is what matters the most. Allowing students to have choice in their reading selections is far more powerful than force feeding "classics" like Jane Eyre down the throat of a 16-year-old sophomore.
2. Give up control
Repeat after me: "This is not about you."
We have already established that I am a control freak. Giving up control is scary, and this kind of shift forces the teacher to give up a great deal of control in the classroom. It is scary... and that is kind of cool.
I am not proposing that you let this turn into total chaos. There needs to be guidelines in place (which I will discuss in another blog post), but the teacher must be willing to turn control over to the students: selection of books, pacing, "abandoning books" when the student isn't digging it, etc...
This should be very individualized for each student. I set a goal for my students to read 20 books in one year. However, through individual conferences if a student tells me she read one book last year, and has read eight books this year, how can that be anything but a win for everyone?
Giving up that control that EVERY student has to read the same books at the same time is scary, but also exhilarating.
3. Give students time to read
If you are going to make a commitment to reading, students need time to actually READ in class. I used to think of "reading" time as filler or a time-waster, but I have found huge value in providing SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) time to my students. The ONLY way students can become better readers is to actually READ.
We start each hour with 10 minutes of SSR. Once everyone has settled down (usually within the first 30 seconds after the bell), I start a timer and the students know they have 10 minutes to read. This does not change. It is the procedure for how we start the class each day.
I also ask my students to read 20 minutes five days a week outside of class. That time could be in another class during the school day, on the bus on the way home, or in bed before they fall asleep. I don't care, as long as they get in another 20 minutes during the day. This builds stamina. Just like a runner needs to invest time in running, readers need to invest time in reading.
My classes meet four times a week. If you do the math, students should read 40 minutes a week in class, plus 100 minutes outside of class. That is 140 minutes of reading a week. If they can read one page a minute, they should be able to read a 300-page book in approximately two weeks.
4. Model reading for students
Kelly Gallagher asserts in Write Like This that the teacher is the best writer in the room; therefore students need to see the teacher writing in front of them. The same logic applies to reading.
Students need to visually see their teacher reading books along with them.
During those 10 minutes of SSR time, I sit at my desk and read a book. I have been trying to read books that my students are reading (I am currently reading The Maze Runner, for example), but I also have been working through my own personal reading list.
I would venture to guess that many students do not regularly see an adult reading books. You may be the only adult in their life that they can see actually reading books. That is a powerful responsibility. If they can see you as the teacher taking part in the same reading experience as them, it makes it a shared experience that you can discuss and talk about with your students, not an "assignment" where the teacher doesn't take an active role.
5. Do not be a fun-sucker
- Do not get bogged down in how you are going to grade it.
- Do not worry about how you are going to keep track of everything.
- Do not stress about students who are not keeping up with the pace.
- Do not get upset with the students who are "gaming" you on the number of books they have read.
- Do not force students to read things they don't want to read.
This should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. If you implement too many rules and guidelines, you are going to make it a dreadful experience. Some students will "game" you. There is no good way to grade this. Things will fall through the cracks.
Keep some guidelines in place, but the focus should be on reading enjoyable books.
These are some simple guidelines I started out with when we started outside reading in my sophomore English class. What are some tips you have for getting started with outside reading?