I am an English teacher and I love to read. I read non-fiction and fiction, classics and chick lit. Nothing makes me happier than wandering through a book store, choosing my next read, and then heading home to crawl up on my couch to get lost in a new adventure. Sadly, not all of my students feel like this about reading. If I’m lucky, a handful of them actually love to read. The reality is that the majority of my students don’t get a rush when they get a new book, and many have found ways around actually cracking the spines of the books we give them to read.
For years I acted as the reading police, giving “did you read it” tests in an attempt to force my students to read the classic texts on our curriculum. Then, last year, I went to an in-service and saw this video created by New Hampshire teacher Penny Kittle:
I knew that the kids in the video were my kids too. The next day I did a survey of all of my students and found that over sixty percent of them had not read their assigned books from tenth and eleventh grade. Yet there they were in my classroom, seniors ready to graduate. They had used sparksnotes and just faked it by listening in class. Many had written successful literary essays on the texts. None had become lifelong readers. I decided to make a change.
Luckily, my change was assisted by my district. The head of English had lobbied the powers that be to finance classroom libraries for every English teacher. Every grade level has six copies of ten very current titles, including two copies of each title for the other grades. It’s a mother load of books that kids want to read. I have supplemented my library with other titles that I have borrowed and bought, so kids can choose from titles likes Hunger Games, I am Messenger, Kite Runner, Outliers, Pride and Prejudice and On the Road. They are reading at their own rate and reading books that interest them. And, they are reading. I can hear a pin drop when it’s silent reading time. We will still read Macbeth and Animal Farm and poetry and short stories. We will still discuss author technique and purpose, and we will still write some traditional English class assignments. However, by giving students choice and allowing them to access a book that speaks to them, we are hopefully turning them onto reading and making it more likely that they will want to read more difficult texts.
One of the biggest problems with this type of independent reading is assessment. How do you mark them when everyone is reading a different text at a different pace? Some students will read twenty books during the same time that others will read two or three. It’s true that it is not as easy for the teacher to track than when everyone is reading the same text, but it is very doable. Penny Kittle has many suggestions and ideas to offer teachers who want to follow her lead and create a real love of reading in their classrooms. You can check out Book Love or her website where she has lots of handouts to help teachers with reading workshops.
It can be hard to change, I know. I’m still only two semesters in to using a workshop approach and sometimes I think it would just be easier to go back to the whole class novel. But when I see thirty heads bent over their books and hear so many voices ask “when are we going to read?”, I know for sure that I know I’m doing the right thing.