In one classroom, all students hold a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For this particular unit, the teacher sits behind her desk with a clipboard watching the students digest the nuances, symbols, and allegorical elements of the book in complete silence. Every day for the couple weeks the unit takes, the students sit for 45 minutes and read Animal Farm. Some students get it; others keep their eyes down so as to give the appearance of reading and not tip off the teacher. The unit ends with the students making a windmill out of popsicle sticks and bing bam boom everyone understands allegory, and it’s time to move on.
In another classroom, an administrator walks in and looks around, confused. Where’s the teacher? Oh there – towards the middle of the room, squatting down next to a student in a quiet conference about the short book on homelessness they are reading. Off to the left of the room is a student glued to a how-to guide on origami. Another writes on a post-it note with the heading “Asking Questions.” She notices two students sitting near each other reading the same book on basketball. Another is smiling cheekily to himself and holding a Magic Treehouse book, but another who was doing that just two days ago is now holding a 450 page book because he saw the movie. When the teacher stands up and looks at the clock and says, “All right – find a good place to stop,” the students groan.
“But I was just getting to the good part!” “Every time you say that it’s at the worst time!”
The first scenario is how I grew up being taught independent reading. And to be completely honest, that way worked for me. I devoured A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Arthur, and all the other books my teacher gave me. There’s a reason after all that I’m an English teacher. But, for almost all my classmates, my brother who came along two years later, and the hundreds of thousands of creative students, that method did not work. Little comprehension was achieved. No strategies worked on to develop meaning. And the assessment at the end? A waste of time because it did not have anything to do with the literary elements of the book. Who knows who actually took anything away from Orwell?
Believe me, I didn’t come out of that class enlightened about a creative, new way to teach reading engagement to kids. For years I thought about the all class novels I could teach because I loved them so much. But then I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Miller, as a sixth grade teacher, let students read whatever they want.
Whatever they want?
Whatever they want.
She starts each year leading her new students through her classroom library and letting students interact with the books. Instead of teaching procedures, she brings out boxes of class sets that many students want to read. She lets students talk to one another about books they’ve read. She sees reluctant readers and talks to them about what they like to do, watch, and play and makes recommendations.
This is a powerful strategy to use in elementary and middle school. Adults who don’t like to read probably came from classrooms where reading wasn’t enjoyable. They never had any positive experiences with reading that would drive them to pick up another book. The earlier we can introduce positive interactions with books, the more likely it is that students will continue to be readers. And the more we can drive them to read – building stamina up throughout the year – the more books they’ll have experience with.
So now my classroom looks like the second scenario. I have students gleefully reading Magic Treehouse thinking they’re getting away with something rebellious. But I’ve seen those same students watch their friends read something “cool” and then look for another copy in the school library. I have students who are slowly making their way through the library’s full automotive section. One is reading the same Ripley’s Believe It Or Not over and over – still waiting for a breakthrough there.
Do they all love reading right now? Hell no. A good portion don’t even like it. But the difference between the second scenario and the first is that in the second – my classroom – the students are reading, making progress, setting goals, and directing themselves. The single most important indicator of success in school today is how much ownership the students feel they have over their learning. Students who feel they have choice in what they read are more motivated to do so, even outside of class.
For the students who didn’t grow up with reading in their bones, offering them a choice over what to read and really making that mean anything (yes, graphic novels and manga) will help these students grow into adults who read. And people who read change the world.