Penny Kittle said, “A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.” This single statement has shaped my teaching career more than just about anything else. And for my first fifteen years, my students (and, chances are, probably yours, too) simply weren’t reading.
I was beyond frustrated.
So, I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than teach how I had been taught. I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than reuse the resources I had feverishly created the years before. I decided to teach the students in front of me, even though it required me to turn what I do in the classroom on its side and allow the students–who were fake reading, at best–to choose what books they would read. Part of my rationale was to help my readers build the stamina they’ll need to tackle the 600-pages-per-week of assigned college reading AND the other part was to help them fall back in love with reading.
Study after study has shown that the more students read, the better they will be at reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and even the unavoidable test-taking.
What study after study has NOT shown is that students have to curl up with the Complete Works of the Bard or anything Dickens or even–dare I say it?–Harper Lee. Nope. These studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t doing that.
Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me absolutely believed), check out the video below. (I show it to my students every September!) It features a group of Penny Kittle’s seniors–all of whom earned good English grades despite–wait for it–rarely cracking a book!
My favorite comment? The Everyman who confesses, at 1:23, to snowing his teachers with, “‘Well, this really gets back to the American Dream’… and then you just make a bunch of stuff up.” That was literally every literature circle in my class prior to allowing choice.
Mind you, this was in spite of my high expectations and my years of facilitating seminar discussions. And I worked hard at creating higher-order-thinking questions that were challenging and could not be found online. (Even now, I generate my own questions so students can’t allow someone online to do the thinking for them. For example, the use of color in The Great Gatsby? I’ll bet both your students and mine would have trouble ignoring the Siren Song of the 52.8 million (!) hits Google just generated for me. In 0.56 seconds.)
Even still, my students weren’t authentically reading. Their writing was formulaic and lacked depth and/or free-thought. Their discussion contributions were superficial and redundant. And they fake-read in my class just as much as they had the year before. Even though they supposedly liked (tolerated?) Teacher-Lady.
However, that all changed once students were allowed to choose what books they were going to read.
I’ll be posting how I make Choice work separately. In the meantime, if you’re uneasy with allowing your students to direct their own learning, know that I was, too. It’s. Terrifying. After all, who’s the one with the literature degree in the room? However, choice in no way means that Teacher-Lady works less or avoids steering students toward rich titles or withholds her vast knowledge about all-things-ELA. On the contrary, it means that in a Choice Classroom, “students assume responsibility and self-direct their own learning.” Which is one of our district’s 21st Century Learning Expectations.
But for this to work, we need to establish some ground rules.
Can we disagree? Absolutely! After all, don’t we teach our students that respectful discourse is how we better understand the other side? Isn’t that one of the very reasons we read? However, enough with the judgment already. Our jobs are hard enough. It’s time we have each other’s back.