So, I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am a total workshop junkie, but this school year was actually my first real go at it. Like many teachers when they initially hear about the free choice involved in workshop, I had a boatload of concerns about starting an independent free-choice reading program with my 8th-grade students.
I knew from my own school experience that I loved the days when my own 8th grade ELA teacher gave us a full period to enjoy a good book, but I was also an avid reader- a bookworm. Could I really expect to get all kids reading independently? Was it really okay not to worry about what ‘level’ books they picked for themselves? How would they be challenged? How would I hold them accountable? So many questions!
I decided to go with my gut, to envision the sort of classroom I would like to be a part of, and to have some faith in my students. Here is what I did and what I found.
I started the very first day of class by making sure a book entered every kid’s hands. I have an extensive classroom library, which I’ll discuss in a later post, but it enables me to get kids reading from day one even if the school library hasn’t opened for the year. I instantly create a culture of reading in my classroom- this is what we do here.
The other thing I did on day one is make a promise to my students. I promised my students that in my classroom, because their voice matters, I would trust them to make their own decisions about the texts that they would read and write that year. I explained that while we may engage in literature occasionally as a class or through book clubs, their independent reading would always be their choice.
I told my students that I trusted them to challenge themselves, but that I also understood that there were times when they may choose to read books they know are easy or just for fun. This is what real readers do. I told students that I didn’t care what level a book was, Lexile or otherwise. I also didn’t care if students reread books they love or enjoy- real readers do this, too. I didn’t care if students abandoned books on the path to finding a reading experience that was right for them. I am fond of reminding my students that life is too short for boring books when there are so many great ones out there waiting for you. Students were free to spend their reading time each day on magazines or news articles, though I explained that I expected them to read at least a handful of novels this year as it was necessary to build stamina and skill as readers.
As I spoke, students were turning to each other with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, unsure whether to take me seriously. When I finished explaining what reading looks like in my classroom, they gave me a literal standing ovation (looking back, this should probably have been my first clue that this group of students was highly overdramatic).
Despite my reassurances to students that it really didn’t matter what they read, so long as they read, I was still nervous. I didn’t want to have to go back on my word if I found that students were not actually reading, and I’d already encountered enough fake readers in my career to know that the struggle was real where that was concerned. I also wanted a way to assess students on CCSS reading standards using their independent reading. But every time I looked for independent reading assignments or projects on Teachers Pay Teachers or other sites, I always left with a bad vibe. Many projects seemed well-envisioned, creative, fun, and engaging, but I was looking for what real readers do with books, and I have never once sat down as an adult to create a playlist based on the main character’s emotions in chapter 3.
For the first chunk of the year, I took another leaf out of Nancie Atwell’s book and gave reading journals a try, giving each student their own Google Doc ‘journal’ and creating a master class list so all the students could write to each other. They had to write once a week and write to me every other week, but they could write to anyone they chose the rest of the time, and they had to reply if someone wrote to them. I gave students a prompt to answer in about a paragraph, and then the rest of their letter contained their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the text.
I learned so much about my students as readers through these letters, and I gained invaluable insight into the reading choices students were making. It was also a much more authentic form of assessment in that, beyond my standards-based prompt, students were authentically responding to their experience with a text, and doing so in an informal “friendly letter” style with other members of our reading community.
It was through the reading letters that I began to see the fruits of trusting my students. Very early in the year, I had one student plugging his way through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. This series was far below his reading level, but I stuck to my guns and said nothing as I knew that anything that might be seen as going back on my word would permanently damage my students’ trust in me. I figured I’d give him another couple weeks and then broach the subject in a reading conference.
About a week later, I got a reading letter from the student, in which he stated, “I finally have a chance to re-read these books now that I’m old enough to understand the humor, and I just don’t get why anyone ever thought these books were funny.” In allowing him to have that reading experience, he was able to come to his own conclusions about the quality of the literature. That same student ended the year (voluntarily!) reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, a much higher level text. He got there because he came to it on his own.
That student is not my only success story. I’ve had kids this year chug their way through Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and other high-level complex texts that most teachers have to beg students to pick up. These students were, as you might suspect, more motivated readers than the average 8th-grade student, but even my students who never pushed themselves to that level still read scores of books. I gave them time to read in class each day, I gave them choice, and I built the culture from day one so that they understood the importance of reading in my classroom. My mini-lessons focus on what real readers do, and I try as often as possible to show students the benefit of reading in their academic and personal lives.
I work hard to make high-interest non-fiction texts available to my students, but non-fiction still does not tend to be a choice for many of my readers. I navigated around this by continuing to use non-fiction texts for mini-lessons, increasing my content literacy instruction in my science classes, and incorporating Article of the Week a la Kelly Gallagher every few Mondays (I alternate with podcasts and TED Talks for variety). I continue to book talk high-interest non-fiction regularly, but I also teach around it.
I got outfoxed by a fake reader this year. This kid used every single trick in the book, from summarizing texts she’d read last year to claiming she “was reading something at home” to keeping an eBook open on her screen while she picked at her nails for 20 minutes. She tried One of Us is Lying early on, but found the rotating character perspectives too much to keep up with. She picked and prodded at a few other books, and finally seemed to find some success with novels in verse. I recommended every high-interest verse-format text I could find, and she enjoyed some Jason Reynolds for awhile, but to this day I’m still not sure she actually finished any of those books, either. Nonetheless, she still showed her requisite growth on our district benchmark come spring, and she’ll make her merry way off to 9th grade, still not a convert to the magical experience that is a great book.
I share this with you to admit and acknowledge that choice reading won’t be a magical silver bullet for every reader, no matter how much freedom and opportunity you give. It just won’t. I strived all year to reach this student, connect her with texts, get her friends to make recommendations for her, but none of it connected. She dutifully completed all her work, made average grades on assessments, and got along just fine, but she never got hooked on a rich reading experience. Some years, with some kids, I suspect that’s just the way things go.
But for this one kid I failed to hook on reading, 28 other kids in my classroom regularly engaged with books and had at least one meaningful reading experience this year. They read, and they enjoyed it. They connected with texts and with each other. And at the end of the day, I’m willing to call that a success.