In October 2018, I wrote about my decision not to teach the whole class novel. I had read a book over Summer 2018 about giving students time to read what they want to read, and expecting them to do it, and how great their reading would improve, and for a bonus, they would actually enjoy reading. As an English teacher it sounds amazing. They have time to read in class and every student is reading something he or she wants, and they’re hooked, right? There would be no whining about having to read this boring book with everyone. Kids wouldn’t be done and waiting for others to catch up. It sounded amazing, but I had doubts.

The Problems With Independent Reading In 10th Grade

Fairly quickly I could see who struggled to read. All of my students are literate, but I know that I have a few who are significantly below grade level. Those students never really gave reading a chance. They knew that they weren’t very good, and no matter what they read, they were reminded that they couldn’t read very well. They had a big obstacle to overcome and it wasn’t worth it.

Students could still fake their reading checks. It takes great imagination to make up characters, plot, and setting, but it can be done. However, the students who were overly vague knew that they had been caught.

It took several students months of sitting there with a book and hating, it before they found a book that they connected with. Once they found that book though, they looked forward to that reading time and often begged for more.

For some reason, students think that they have reflexes fast enough to switch from their texting app to the book that they are “reading”. It’s annoying knowing that they think they’re getting away with something.

The students who love to read don’t put their books down.

The Benefits of Independent Reading In 10th Grade

The students who like to read, read more and enjoy reading more. The students who are already reading a wide variety of books continue to read a wide variety, and even recommend books to me.

Students have reported seeing vocabulary words we have worked on in school, in their personal reading.

In the end not all students love to read. Even some of the well-organized, intellectual students didn’t enjoy the time that they had to read. I would like to think that their writing has improved, though. I’ll watch that next year.

Conclusion

I’m sold. I would much rather recommend certain students read the books we would have read in class together, and let other students discover which books they connect with. They might not know what they like to read, but with time, they can discover it. Students need a break from their every day stress and other classes. Reading can be a form of relaxation, entertainment, or connection to someone or somewhere else. They recognize those connections, too. They recognize when they relate to the main character. They recognize when they connect with a person in non-fiction. They make connections to what is happening in the world around them. Most of all, they realize that they’re not the only one struggling. They understand that everyone has problems, and that we should be a little more sensitive and understanding when someone is having a bad day.

Hopefully they see that in their day-to-day lives, not just when they’re reading.

I still taught Macbeth whole class, but we watched it more than we read it, and now we’re writing about it. That’s different, right?

What I don’t understand, is how some call Macbeth boring.

If you teach ELA to any age group, I’d like to know what you think about whole class novel instruction. Do you enjoy it? Do you wish you could do something else?

Let me know.

Read on!

-Dave

Do you think that the books read in school are boring? Are parents really worried about what their kids are reading in school? I can imagine that some parents don’t want their kids reading certain books because of language, or inappropriate scenes. How often does that happen? How often do teachers push their own agenda in the classroom? I don’t think it happens in elementary school or middle school. It might happen in high school, and more than likely happens at university. However, by the time our kids get to be adults attending college, shouldn’t they be capable of analyzing what others say, and deciding for themselves?

My Experience

I’ve worked in two different school districts, both of which are populated by fairly conservative families. When teachers talk about what they’re teaching, they’re limited to a list of books approved for a specific grade, or lexile level. The books that are available to use in class aren’t always physically available in the school. So, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. In most cases, teachers teach from books that are approved, and that have been purchased by a teacher and administration consensus.

When I write, “books that are approved”, I mean books that have been submitted for review by a teacher who would like to use it. A committee of teachers, librarians, and community members read the book and decide if it has literary value, anything that might be seen as inappropriate, and if it fits the grade level of the students being taught.

In my experience, most books are classics. They’re older and have some historic and cultural value. Books that will probably be around forever like To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and nearly everything by William Shakespeare.

My Philosophy

Obviously young kids shouldn’t be exposed to books that have foul language, or excessive violence. Sometimes adult books will have kids versions that are significantly modified. I think that’s fine, but there are so many things to read that it isn’t necessary. I don’t know how it happens exactly, but kids get to middle school, and they start to hate school. They might like to read, but then they’re told what to read and when to finish and it becomes a chore. I would much rather have kids read something they like on their own time, or even during class time so they don’t lose that interest.

When I taught 8th grade we read Ender’s Game in class. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. It’s interesting, it’s unusual, it’s violent, has some foul language, and is on the approved list. When reading out loud, I usually replace the words to something silly, which helps kids keep reading along. They giggle when I change something which causes the bored kids to wonder what’s up. We can talk about cause and effect. We can talk about what they would do if they were there. We can identify what is appropriate according to our cultural norms, and what is inappropriate. It is a great community learning experience.

What about Shakespeare. When was the last time you read Shakespeare? High school? College? Did you really read it, or did your teacher simplify things for you? Go back to the famous “love story” Romeo and Juliet. It’s not really about love. It’s a story of infatuation between two teens over a three day period. The opening scene between Gregory and Sampson is typical of Shakespeare’s punning; talking about maidenhead and salted fish. Seriously, parents complain about things, but not Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Shakespeare. I think he was the most clever writer of drama in the English language. Do parents remember reading Shakespeare? Do they really care what their students are reading, or does Shakespeare get a pass just because his writing is old and everyone reads it?

Why Read Together In Class?

When everyone in class has experienced the same story at the same time, it’s easy to have a conversation. It’s easy to address social or environmental concerns. Kids can ask questions and hear what multiple people have to say about it. As a teacher, I can guide the conversation. I can act like I don’t understand what students are talking about, forcing them to think about what they really think and explain more specifically. I can put kids into pairs or groups to help those who are shy or timid communicate in a less stressful environment. I can then provide other whole class experiences that force the kids to band together.

Standing Up For Who We Are

When we read about Anne Frank and World War Two, students had a hard time understanding why it was so difficult for Jews to stand up for themselves. They didn’t understand the community pressure to report traitors to the German government. I tried to give students a feeling of this during class. I started class in a very stern, almost angry way. I told students that we had a lot of things to do during class, and that we didn’t have a lot of time to waste. I divided students into groups to read picture books about The Holocaust, but I didn’t give them enough time to do it. I had them switch to the next book before they could finish. Students started to complain that they weren’t finished, so I sent them to the hall. The first few students to complain were really scared. Usually they were the on task students who never got into trouble. They couldn’t understand why I was in such a bad mood. Eventually six or seven kids were sent out into the hall, and kids still in class were totally silent, totally on task.

Time To Process

After 10 minutes or so, I called the students in the hall back to class. Everyone was silent. I asked them what they experienced as they tried to read the assigned picture books. I had them take out a piece of paper to write down their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and anything else they thought about the activity. Their eyes got bigger, and some smiled as they started to understand the connection. They wrote about their fear and frustration. Eventually, we could talk about why it was so difficult to stand up against Hitler’s government. They were much more sympathetic to the situation and realized how easy it can be to give someone else power.

Reading can be a powerful experience whether individually, or in a class of 30 other people. Sometimes we read to escape, and sometimes we read to understand others. Teachers try to choose books that they are confident will help students. Teachers try to help students become thoughtful, sympathetic, empathetic, caring, and patient.

I don’t know how, but I missed reading a lot of books that others read in middle and high school. I’ve read many of them as an adult, and for the most part loved the experience each book offered. Some are still not great, but that’s a matter of personal opinion and I’m OK with that.

What did you read in middle school or high school? How did those stories change your perspective on life?

 

Read on!

-Dave

I think about reading all of the time. I try to think of ways to encourage my students to read more. I spent the first few years of my teaching career teaching whole class novels probably like every other ELA teacher. I was excited to share Bilbo’s journey through Mirkwood. I took a risk by singing the dwarves’ story about the Misty Mountains. I like making kids uncomfortable, ok? I love comparing Bilbo’s choices and character growth to our lives, and I like to think the kids in 8th grade got it.

When I think about the whole process in a big picture sort of way, I can see why so many kids start to despise reading. We start the chapter, then stop to ask questions. Then they get a worksheet or vocabulary, then we finish the chapter. It doesn’t flow. I don’t read that way, and you probably don’t either.

Too often when we read a whole novel together as a class, we ask students questions that they probably aren’t capable of answering yet. Most of them haven’t read all the way through The Hobbit (the movie doesn’t count!). How do they know if he’s a hero yet, or not? They don’t understand the history of the Tooks and Bagginses, and how that personal baggage has an impact on Bilbo’s decisions from The Last Homely House to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain. They barely even notice how regularly he whines about wanting to be home by his fire with a nice cup of tea.

What are we to do, then? Do we really need to pack every kid at every imaginable reading level along for the ride? Not if we’re going to stop and analyze every plot point and every characters action. We’ve lost them before we’ve begun.

I had a great conversation with a friend one recent Saturday. She talked of an experience she had in a high school English class. The teacher tried something for the first time that year. He had the class read The Old Man and the Sea all the way through before beginning to close read and ask questions. No extra assignments for comprehension. They just read. Then they came back and started the book again. But now with an understanding of who’s who, and where they are. She talked about how she actually understood the plot, and character motive, and the big picture of what the story is really about. That is amazing to me!

This is my first year teaching at a high school. I teach sophomores, and I’m trying something new. I get the feeling that they understand what they read better than when they were in 7th and 8th grade. Hopefully that’s true, they’ve been practicing for a few years. I don’t know exactly how I will do it, but I have until January to figure that out. We will be reading Macbeth, and I want to give them access to the characters and story all the way through once before I start to ask the why’s, who’s, when’s and what-if’s. I want them to understand the puns, and how the phrases turn. I want them to appreciate some aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Sure we’ll read it twice, and at least watch a version of it once, but I’m hoping they love it like we expect everyone to love Shakespeare. Does watching one of Shakespeare’s plays count as reading? Is that cheating?

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for every possible trick to help my students succeed with and love Shakespeare.

Donalyn Miller has a point. If they’re reading ability or reading enjoyment doesn’t improve, then why are we making them read?

Keep reading!

-Dave