Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

Perfect Game or What I Learned from Reading

I’m not a baseball fan.  In fact, you could say I am the exact opposite.  If you wanted to somehow put me to sleep, stick me in front of a TV with a baseball game on.  I’m more of a soccer, basketball, Olympics girl.  Fast. Aggressive.  High-scoring.  That’s how I like my sports.

However, I read an inordinate number of baseball books because I teach in a baseball town.  Every year, at least half of my boys are baseball players.  They love to read books about baseball, baseball players, and baseball history.  So this past year I read (and loved) Alan Gratz’s The Brooklyn Nine. At the end of the book, Gratz includes an afterword with historical information pertaining to each story in the book.  It was there that I learned there have only been 17 perfect games in MLB history.

Today, I opened my computer to read the headline Buehrle tosses first MLB perfect game in 5 years.  Before I read the article, I immediately thought to myself, “Wow!  Now there have been 18 perfect games!  How cool would it be to actually pitch one of those 18 games in the last 100 years?”  Not exactly what you’d expect from someone who has never watched an entire baseball game all the way through, huh?  More importantly, not what you would expect from the the girl who spent the one season she played softball making daisy chains in the outfield.  

Before reading Gratz’s book I never would have known this information.  I probably would not have even clicked on the link and read the article.  But because I read The Brooklyn Nine I was interested in the story.  Reading that book led me to read the article from Sports Illustrated today.  And now I know that there have only been 5 pitchers in MLB history to throw a perfect game and a no-hitter.  Isn’t that exactly what we want our students to do?  Read, build schema, and then go out to read and learn more?

And this can happen with any book.  I’ve seen students go out and research synesthesia after reading Wendy Mass’s A Mango-Shaped Space. Students who read Cryptid Hunters read non-fiction about cryptozoology. So on and so forth.

There are no bad books.  Sometimes I have parents who think that sports books are a waste of time.  Or horror.  Or humorous books.  Or magazines.  It goes one and on.  But here’s the magic of reading: fiction leads to reading more non-fiction-whether it is non-fiction books, articles on the internet, magazines, or any other informational reading on a specific subject.  It’s just as likely that readers of non-fiction will seek out fiction books on similar subjects, or more informational texts (in a variety of genres) about the same subject.  Reading begets more reading.  There’s no more organic way to get kids to read than to just allow them to read what they want and to continue reading what they enjoy!

Even better?  All that reading builds up background knowledge and schema.  Students with more schema do better on standardized testing because they have the necessary background knowledge.  More importantly, students with a large array of schema will connect to more books, more subjects in school, more teachers, and more people.  They are more well-rounded..

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

When I first sat down to read Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher, I was afraid I would have a hard time getting through it. Not because of the content, but because the book is currently availabe online for review and I hate reading longer works on the computer.  (I may gravitate toward 21st century literacies, but reading on the computer is where I usually draw the line!)  Well, I had nothing to worry about- once I began reading I could not stop.  Kelly Gallagher has written a book that EVERY teacher, administrator, and parent MUST read.  I have seen firsthand how schools are killing reading, and Kelly presents situations I see everyday with the studies and research to back it all up!

Kelly Gallagher defines readicide as “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” He outlines four current educations practices that are primarily responsible for this:
  • schools value a student’s ability to take the test more than a student’s development of a lifetime love of reading

Sad, but true.  NCLB has forced schools and teachers to focus on the all-important standardized test.  With so much riding on those scores, from funding to the teacher’s job, we need a book like this to remind teachers and administrators how important that lifetime love of reading is.  Is it more important to pass a test or to be able to read novels, non-fiction, newspapers, and more?  

  • schools limit authentic reading experiences

This is my life’s goal, to surround my students with a reading flood, as Gallagher puts it.  I have seen the effects that a classroom library has on students, and Gallagher has reconfirmed that for me.  More teachers need to have classroom libraries, surrounding their students with a veritable “flood” of reading material to choose from.  

  • teachers are overteaching books

When Gallagher shares a novel unit from LAUSD, you can’t help but cringe.  Despite our best intentions, many teachers overteach the books they read with their students.  The pressure to get so much in in so little time force too many teachers to chop up novels, teaching every skill with one book.  The result?  It takes 10 weeks to read a novel that students end up hating!  We need to help our students appreciate, if not enjoy, academic reading.

  • teachers are underteaching books

We need to be introspective here.  Where do we draw the line between overteaching a novel and underteaching it?  Many students need scaffolding for more difficult books but we have to make sure we aren’t going beyond scaffolding.  This fourth point was the one that made me think the most.  

 

WOW.  This book is absolutely phenomenal.  As I was reading I just kept saying, “Yes! Yes!  Someone actually gets it!”  We need to get this book in the hands of as many people as possible.  Can someone send this to our new President?  If you are a teacher or an administrator, place your pre-order now so that you can read it ASAP.  I’ve already ordered my copy and I can’t wait to annotate it, flag it, and then share it!

Don’t forget-  Kelly started his blog tour today!  He will be stopping here on 1/26, answering your questions!  Leave a comment with your questions and look for the answers on 1/26.  In the meantime, be sure to follow the rest of his tour:

Kelly’s Blog Tour Schedule
1/20 – A YEAR OF READING
1/22 – THE TEMPERED RADICAL
1/23 – THE DREAM TEACHER
1/26 - Here!  THE READING ZONE
1/28 – THE BOOK WHISPERER

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