Monday, February 8, 2016

Guest Post: 6 Assumptions That Were Killing Reading In My Classroom

Guest Post by Amber Dlugosh

After four years of teaching novels and short stories from classroom sets, I daily stared into the eyes of students who collectively looked like they were slowly mummifying. I found myself exhausted and at the end of my rope, knowing that most students weren’t reading and those who were traversing all of the assigned content were not loving it. The learning climate of my classroom demanded a change, so I took a semester to fly south for the winter. In less poetic terms, I crafted my personal learning plan around reading instruction and led a small book study over Penny Kittle’s Book Love. After implementing many of the strategies Kittle discusses at length in her book, I was in awe at how easily the reluctance and apathy in my classroom melted away.

After much reflection, it's clear my previous classroom practices were hindered by flawed assumptions about reading. Below I trace how my assumptions have changed in recent months.

1. Students will not honestly engage in dialogue about their own reading habits.

Before making any changes in my classroom, I took an entire day of instruction to host a roundtable discussion with each of my classes. Students were very aware and very honest about their perceptions of reading and how the structure of previous schools/classrooms impacted these perceptions in both positive and negative ways. The biggest take-aways from those discussions? 1) Choice. Choice. Choice. Kids want the freedom to choose their books, 2) Testing reading comprehension kills the love of reading and promotes cheating, 3) Requiring kids to read at their Lexile level severely dampens the love of reading for all readers, especially skilled readers, 4) The love for reading typically died around middle school, with high school driving the final nail into the coffin, and finally 5) Most kids want to be readers. They voiced the desire coupled with feelings of inadequacy to call themselves such.

2. Teachers must focus on rigor, so students should not be allowed to read below their personal level.

Adults frequently read for pleasure. The majority of Barnes and Noble is stocked with books created to entertain, yet somehow, teachers started assuming that the main goal of reading was to boost reading levels, and the only way to do so was to read a tad above where you’re currently testing. When students are reading as frequently as mine are, there is no worry in allowing texts lower than grade level, because they are exercising their reading muscles and critical thinking skills that will be needed for more difficult texts. It is my job to monitor their reading habits and push them toward more complicated texts, but there is no harm in re-reading The Hunger Games and noticing new details that were missed the first time through, which causes students to hunt for those things in future, unfamiliar reads.

3. Teachers must utilize class-wide texts to monitor and assess properly.

Class-wide novels, short stories, and articles have their place. However, when they are the main source of reading in a classroom, students can easily participate without ever having read a page. Trust me. They told me. Quizzes and tests felt like necessary assessment, but I think I overlooked the power of conversation. Before, I was always wary that my kids weren’t actually reading. Now, I am certain students are reading because they can’t stop talking to me about characters, stories, authors, movie comparisons, real events, news articles relating to their reading, etc. I no longer have to waste my time with comprehension quizzes; instead, we are able to plunge deeper into other content goals that require critical thinking.

4. The majority of students will not read by choice.

I am now entirely convinced that students do not read for one main reason: they have not found the right book. Students know reading is valuable, and even those who struggle, still long to build their skills. Once they find the right book, it is hard to get them to stop. Now, I rarely have issues with technology distraction in my room; instead, students are sneaking more reading time in during my instruction. One young lady who openly admitted to reading frustration due to her low skill level asked to sit in my room after school and read. Every day, I write passes for kids who are begging to come to my academic help time, which is now 30 minutes devoted to quiet reading. Students WANT to read; we must help them gain the proper tools to do so.

5. Expecting every student to read the same assignment is perfectly reasonable. 

When I started calculating my own reading rate for each book I consumed, I noticed an alarming issue: I do not read at a consistent pace. My background knowledge, my interest with the content, the author’s style, the author’s word choice, and my own distractibility all played huge roles in my reading speed. If that is true for me, someone who is a skilled reader, how much more so does it vary for my students? It was foolish of me to think every kid could read the same novel at exactly the same speed and enjoy my class simultaneously. Now, students calculate their own weekly page goals by configuring their reading rates.

6. It doesn’t matter if students read books, as long as they’re reading.

Because the majority of my students weren’t reading, I used to feel like any amount of reading they conquered was considered a victory. I caught myself saying things like, “If I can’t get them to endure through a novel, we can read articles and short stories and still see gain.” No. I am no longer convinced of that because I now see what great trait I was neglecting: endurance. A beautiful thing happens when students complete an entire book! Their confidence flourishes, and their appetite for more increases.

I am continuing to learn from this new classroom endeavor, and my students challenge me each day with new book recommendations and interesting discussions. However, I feel the overall learning climate could be summarized by a quote I overheard a student saying to the class at the start of the day:

"I used to stay up late playing video games, and now I read. I’m like an adult or something."

Amber Dlugosh teaches 10th and 12th Grade ELA at Bolivar High School. She also serves as a member of our building leadership team. Currently, she is working on a Master's Degree in Secondary English Education at Missouri State University. She has been closely affiliated with National Writing Project as a participant and presenter.

Question: How do you bring life back into reading for your students? What practices do you need to lay to rest? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook

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