Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tackling Readicide: Five rules to establish

I will admit it: I am a control freak.

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of reading in my classroom and how I get my students reading books. Now that I have established the purpose for outside reading, I am going to share some of the rules I have established. For me, the scary part of this project is that I can't be a control freak. There is a need for established rules and procedures, but you also have to let your students go... which is scary for a control freak like me.

Here are five rules that I have established in my classroom that help me be LESS of a control freak:

1. Students must READ for the first 10 minutes of class.

For years, I attempted every type of bellwork they teach you in college: journals, grammar exercises, and responses. It probably works for some people, but it never really did for me. When I tried journaling, students would write for a couple of minutes and then put their pens down and sit. When I tried grammar exercises, there were always a million questions that I would have to answer. Nothing seemed to work.

Reading a book is something that all of my students can do every day. 

I have an egg timer that I use, but you can also use the timer on your cell phone. I wait until everyone is settled down (usually 30 seconds or so), and then I start the timer. 

I protect this time: I don't allow passes to the bathroom or their locker, I don't answer questions, I don't pass back papers. This is their time to read. 

If a student does not have a book, I have a set of short story books on my counter. That usually motivates them to come with a book of their choice to the next class period.

We have three 50-minute class periods a week and one 90-minute block. I dedicate 40 minutes a week for my students to read; this is almost an entire class period. Even a math teacher can see how important reading is in my class. 

2. Set a lofty goal at the start of the year. 

I commend her for this, but I did not feel like this was a goal that my students were ready for. For my sophomore students, I set a goal of 20 books in a year. Last year, I would say 1/3 of my students read 20+ books, 1/3 read 8-15, and 1/3 read 8 or fewer books. 

I am not naive. I know that probably half of my students lied and did not read the number of books they claimed to. However, at the end of the year I asked how many students read more books than ever before, all students raised their hands. I believed them.

This year, I have three sections of Pre-AP Sophomore English classes. I would guesstimate that many of them had read 20 books before the end of the first semester. They are avid readers. Next year, I will probably up the requirement for Pre-AP to 30-40 books, which I believe is a more appropriate goal for them. 

When I ask students how many books they read a year ago, I usually get the same answer: "None" or "Just the books we were assigned." When I ask how many books they have read this year, and they answer with "five" with huge smile on their face, I know that is a win. Going from zero to five books in one year is huge. Setting that goal of 20 is important because it gives students something to shoot for, even if they all don't reach it. 

3. Define what constitutes a "book."

When you set a goal for how many books students need to read, you must think about what defines a "book" when it comes to number of pages.

My loose definition is that 175 pages constitutes a "book." However, if a student reads a short book of 120 pages, I still count that as a book. For counting purposes, I say that every 175 pages is a book. So:

175 pages = 1 book
350 pages = 2 books
525 pages = 3 books
700 pages = 4 books

This system encourages students to read longer books, because they know they will count for more than one book. I have had students read the entire Harry Potter series, which puts them over the 20 book goal. 

It is up to you how rigid you want to be with this counting system. I often have students say, "This book is 330 pages. How many books is that?" I make a judgement call on how many books I want to count that as. If it is a rigorous book, I will count it as two. 

There has to be a cut-off somewhere, and this page numbering system for defining a "book" has encouraged students to read longer, more rigorous books. 

4. Allow students to read what they want, but push them to more rigorous books.

Genres is something that I am really struggling with.

My students become locked into a specific genre: Sci-Fi, Dystopia, Sports, Vampire, Chick Lit. I love that once they find a genre they enjoy, they want to read more books from that genre.

I have so many students who have read The Hunger Games series, and then the want to read the Maze Runner and Divergent series. That is great. However, I want to push them to more rigorous books.

One thing I have tried this year is once students have established they enjoy a specific genre, I recommend a more challenging book in that genre. For example, for my dystopia-loving students, I have recommended The Road. For my Vampire-loving students, I have recommended Salem's Lot. 

I am also working on how to push students out of their comfort zone. So many of my students get locked into a specific genre, usually fantasy or sci-fi. I want them to experience other genres, while still reading the books they enjoy.

Here is an idea I am working on for next year. During the course of a semester, each student will play tic-tac-toe. They must read from three other genres in some fashion on a tic-tac-toe board. (I put this board together in about 10 minutes, so I haven't given much thought to where the genres should go on the board.)

The idea is that students will still have choice in what genres to do, but they will be pushed from what they normally read. 

Has anyone tried something similar to this?

5. Abandon books if they are bad.

Simply put: If a book sucks, stop reading it. 

Some books are bad. Some books are not the right "fit" for students. Some students are not ready for the book they chose. 

I remember trying to read The Trial by Kafka on my own in high school. It was terrible, but I plowed through it because we were supposed to be reading a book, and I couldn't quit once I chose one. 

Fast forward 20 years. Last week I recommended The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to a student who likes war books. I loaned him a copy, and he started reading it. A few days later, he brought it back to me and said he read 100 pages, and it just wasn't for him. I didn't make him feel bad; I helped him find another book. 

If a student reads 175 pages of a book, I have her write it in her book log and count it as a book. 

If we are going to encourage students to read many books, we have to acknowledge that some books suck, and teach them that it is OK for them to abandon books. 

I know this outside reading project scares many teachers away because it feels like it is taking the control from the teacher and giving it to the students. These five simple rules have really helped me give structure to something that seems like it could easily get out of control.

What rules have you implemented to outside reading to help guide your students, while still making them feel in control of the process?


  1. Excellent post. I'm a ninth grade English teacher trying to do more independent reading. I like your ideas. Thank you for them.

    If students are reading 40 minutes a week in your class, how do they get to 20+ books by the end of the year? Do they also read outside of class? Do you assign it for homework?

    I'd like my students to read ~3+ hours per week, but I've had trouble getting to that amount. Do you have ideas? Thank you again.

  2. Mark: Thank you for the comments.

    Part of the requirement is that they read 20 minutes at home five days a week. That is basically the only homework they have every night.

    So, they read 40 minutes in class, and 100 minutes outside of class... that is a little over 2 hours of reading if they stay on top of it.

    I am not delusional. I know many students do not read outside of class as they should. However, I honestly believe they are reading more than they ever have before. Thank you for the questions.

  3. How do you deal with books within your schools curriculum?

  4. I'm totally taking this idea and running with it, as I think it is splendid! Do you have students do any assignments with the books? Anything that would make them proud of their reading? I'm desperate for interesting ideas.

    Love the blog! :)

  5. One way to push students out of their genre-comfort zone is to encourage "A Blind Date with a Book." One of my friends linked to this concept on Facebook and I suggested it to our school librarian last year. She began it in February, I offered extra credit for students who were willing to go on a blind date (they had to stay at least through appetizers - the first four chapters - before saying the book wasn't for them), and more students checked out books during 2nd Semester (and they weren't just my students). I was going to do the same thing with my classroom library, but didn't get around to it.

    Here's what to do:
    1. Select books. Our librarian chose books that hadn't been checked out all year (our school opened last year, so there were many books to choose from).
    2. Wrap the books in brown paper bags - you can wrap them like presents or put them in paper bags, just be sure to leave some way of identifying the book (our librarian wrote the barcode number on the bag).
    3. Decorate the bag with words/symbols that can sell the book without giving away the genre or story.

    Let the students go crazy. I had a substitute incredously ask why students would flock to check out these books and not the books on the shelves. The answer is simple, everyone loves surprises - it's the reason that stores have started selling "mystery grab bags" and why some toy companies sell small merchandise in two-pack mystery sets (Disneyland pins, Magic cards, etc). I had so many students read and enjoy books that they never would have chosen on their own. It also allowed for me to have meaningful discussions about why blind dates are important when it comes to expanding our social circle, whether it be through new friends or romantic relationships.

  6. I absolutely love your ideas. I've been teaching English II & English IV for 21 years, and your ideas help to make my teaching more focused and fun for both myself and my students. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.