It’s probably no secret to anyone reading this that I am a reader. I know very few English teachers who aren’t! One of the great things about readers, at least readers that I know, is that they cannot wait to share whatever great book they’ve recently read with whomever will stand still long enough to listen to a brief (okay, not usually brief) synopsis. I myself am often guilty of purchasing a novel as an eBook, then again in hard copy so I can give it to someone else to read just so I can talk to someone about the book! As a teacher, one of my biggest letdowns is to have a student tell me that they don’t read, they don’t like reading, and they can’t remember the last thing they read for pleasure.
For years, I blamed my students’ lack of reading on a shift in popular culture, the introduction of readily accessible handheld technology, video games, etc. I blamed it on everything except the fact that I was not putting the right books into my students’ hands. It wasn’t until I thought of myself as part of the problem that I could become part of the solution. If I wanted a classroom full of readers, if I valued reading as much as I said I did, I needed to make sure my classroom space and time reflected that value. I needed to create a classroom culture of readers.
For me, step one in creating a classroom culture of readers was selling reading to my students as an acceptable and enjoyable activity. I started leaving books with interesting covers around my classroom. Immediately outside my door I began posting covers and synopses of the books I had read recently. I started opening class with anecdotes about whatever book I was currently reading. I shared tweets with them from authors I love. I let them see my nerdy excitement over books and authors. I let them know it’s ok to be excited by a book and/or an author.
My next step was to provide access to quality, high-interest fiction and non-fiction books for my students. In public schools, funding is always a concern, so I started with what was free: the school library. To my high school students, the school library was an enigma. All of my students knew where the library was located; none had entered its doors voluntarily. So, we took a field trip! I asked the school librarian to pull some high interest titles. I let my students wander the stacks and I wandered with them, pointing out books I’ve read and loved, steering certain students toward specific titles. I explained how to check out books, and some students did.
Other students were a little more resistant. For these students, the library was overwhelming. Too many titles, too many authors they had never built relationships with. Since I was still left without funds at this point, I instead raided my own book shelves at home. I strategically selected books for specific students and asked them to trust me, to promise to read the first five chapters without giving up. I checked in with them periodically over the next week; none gave me back their book.
Eventually, I realized that I could not personally fund all of the books I wanted my students to read. I needed to look for other sources of funds. I turned to grant writing. I was able to get a sizable grant from a local university that is tied to a research project related to student-selected independent reading and increased fluency, stamina, and comprehension. I was also able to apply for a grant from a national financial institution. With the funds (partially) in hand, I contacted our local Barnes & Noble and placed a large order. My classroom library was born.
With a smaller grant arriving later this fall, my students have started making recommendations for books they would like to see added to the library shelves. They, too, are invested.
Reading is FUNdamental
Once books were available for my students and I was starting to gain their interest, I had to figure out how to make independent reading a central theme in my English classes. I turned to one of my pedagogical heroes: Penny Kittle. In her book, Book Love, Kittle outlines a method for establishing each individual student’s personal reading goal in terms of fluency. Students read a book of their choice for ten minutes. They tally their total number of pages in ten minutes and multiply that number by six, providing the number of pages each student could fluently read in an hour.
For example, if Student A reads nine pages in ten minutes’ time, that same student could read 54 pages in one hour.
For my AP students, I set the expectation of reading outside of class for two hours per week. For my English 11 students, I set the expectation of reading outside of class for one hour per week.
Each day, I pass around a clipboard and students record the number of pages read since the previous day. On Fridays, I tally their totals and check to see if their personal goals are met. If a student fully reaches his goal, he receives full credit. If a student partially reaches his goal, he receives partial credit. No student is going to fail because of not meeting a reading goal; the idea is for students to read more! Student goals are re-established monthly and their progress is tracked.
When a student finishes a book, he or she spends a couple of minutes sharing their book with the class, and then completes a “one-pager,” a short handout that asks students to think about their book in terms of character, theme, purpose, or argumentation.
Bringing Back SSR
It’s been my belief for some time that students become better writers when they are given a model of good writing. I also believe the same is true for reading! I want my students to know I’m a reader; I want them to see me reading. Starting this year, I have set aside ten minutes of each class period for Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). After our bell work, I set a timer for ten minutes and my students AND I read. It has become one of the highlights of my classes and if for some reason I forget, my students quickly remind me. I let them count these ten minutes per day as part of their weekly outside reading. The ultimate goal is simply that they read.
If any of my students were asked if I value reading in my classroom, I know the answer would be “Yes.” If any of students were asked if I support their reading in my classroom, I know the answer would be “Yes.” But perhaps the greatest reward from making these changes in my classroom came from a student just yesterday when she said, “Thank you for giving me [The Hate U Give]. I’ve never read so much in my life. I loved it.” Really, that’s all I want for them.
*If anyone has questions about my specific methods or grants, please feel free to email me!
WVCTE Wonders: How have you worked to create a culture of readers in your classroom?