All students need to read diverse books

“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”

-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall

A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another.  Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.

I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students.  My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read.  My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.

I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too.  These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality.  We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man.  We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.

My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.  Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books.  When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families.  However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered.  Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.

The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting.  It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country.  If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.

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The first 10 minutes of class

I realize how cliché this statement sounds, but I’m trying to write more this year about my classroom experiences.  I know that writing more will improve my writing, which is an obvious plus.  And I’m an English Language Arts teacher, so I should be practicing what I preach and writing on a semi-regular basis.  But more importantly, I don’t want to forget all the wonderful things that go on inside my classroom daily, and this seems like a decent way of preventing that from happening.  So without further adieu, here are my highlights thus far from 2018:

The first 10 minutes

I’m a firm believer that students need time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I’ve been implementing this approach to literacy for over 3 years now, basically from the moment I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  For the past two years (and half of this year), I’ve always blocked out several work sessions a week to allow the students 15 to 20 minutes of unobstructed time to read a self-selected book.  The problem that I’ve wrestled with for some time, though, is that there is never enough time to do all the things that I need to do with the kids.  They can’t just read their own books; we have to have mentor texts that we can use together so that the students can work in small groups to practice all the skills that go along with being a good reader (making inferences, learning new vocabulary, recognizing and understanding point of view, explaining how setting affects both the characters and the plot, conflict, etc., etc., etc.).  If I give them two to three days a week to read their own books, then that only leaves a couple of days to work on all those aforementioned skills. Oh, and I have to teach them how to write the following genres: narrative, explanatory and argumentative.  There just isn’t enough time. I always feel like I’m taking away from something else, and that makes me feel guilty as hell as their teacher.

This week, though, I stumbled upon a podcast called Teach Me, Teacher that offered me a solution to my aforementioned problem: read at the beginning of class.  In the first episode that I listened to, the host, Jacob Chastain, interviewed THE Donalyn Miller, and he divulged to her that he has his kids reading from their self-selected texts for the first 15 minutes of every class.  Chastain claimed that using this opening portion of the class actually helped him to reduce wasted time in his lessons because his students were on task as soon as they walked into the room. His class periods are slightly longer than mine, so I couldn’t reconcile using 15 minutes, but this week I started off all my classes with 10 minutes of independent reading time followed by a “Status of the Class” update and a short reading response in their journals.  Then we moved into whatever skill I wanted to cover that day using either a newspaper article or our class novel.

I’ve only been implementing this strategy for a week, but so far I am loving it.  The kids know that as soon as they come into the room they are to find the book that they are reading and get to their seat so that when I walk in they are ready to begin.  Historically, I had what we call a “Brain Crank” or “Warm Up” question on the board that the kids are supposed to answer when they come into my room.  Typically, this could be a quote from a book we are reading or something else that requires them to make an inference.  The problem, however, is that I teach 7th graders, and they get very little time to socialize throughout the day other than the two minutes when they are in the hall transitioning to their next class.  So when my students enter my room, they are not all going to be 100% committed to sitting down and starting my warm up question.  Inevitably, several students will not have even remembered to grab their composition notebooks on the way into class. Several more might have managed to get their notebooks, but by the time I enter the room they are still resting closed on their desks.  And generally anywhere from 3 to 10 kids are in need of a pencil, hence, the name of this blog.  By the time all of those issues get resolved, we’re a couple minutes into the lesson and my students are just now attempting to tackle the question.  Four to five minutes later, we go over their responses. All and all, this task can take anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes.

However, the process of getting a book and starting to read limits most of those roadblocks I mentioned above.  Plus, while the kids are reading, I can knock out all the little house-cleaning tasks that teachers have to go through before class can really begin: take attendance, hand out pencils, pass out handouts or articles, etc.  This also gives me a chance to jot down what titles everyone is reading and notice who’s sticking with a book and who’s giving up on what they read the day before (which means I know who I need to talk to ASAP).  I can already tell I am not wasting as much time as I was before when I had the warm up question routine.  My lessons are tighter and the kids are reading more on a daily basis.  Also, they are reading from multiple texts in one lesson period, which helps them to recognize the similarities and differences in content and style that exist across books.  One other perk of this new strategy is that having the students begin a class by reading independently is a great way to chill everybody out, and it sets everything up for a productive lesson.

Mini book club

I have about eight students now spread out amongst my five classes that have read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on their own.  Each of them was frustrated with the ending.  They didn’t understand why the author didn’t provide them with a clear-cut solution that neatly wrapped the story up at the end.  As I alluded to above, middle school students do not have a lot of unstructured time, and nor do the teachers for that matter.  If I were a high school teacher, I wouldn’t have to eat lunch with my students, and I could host small groups to discuss the books that we were reading or that we had recently finished.  Alas, this is not the case for me, but I wanted to get these students together so that they could vent about the book in the same place.  So I snagged them one by one on Friday and brought them into my homeroom and let them go at it, which was awesome!  They all expressed their frustrations with the book’s conclusion, and then looked to me to provide them with some sort of comfort or solution to this transgression by Mr. Reynolds, to which I just shrugged my shoulders (which led to more arguing).  I want these little organic book discussions to happen more amongst my students who have read the same book, and I’m going to make a goal for 2018 to figure out how to make this happen on a more frequent basis.

Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament

Someone that I follow on Twitter last year posted that they hold “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournaments in class to give their students a quick mental break, and I wish I could remember who that person was because I would gladly send them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.  This year, I’ve held regular tournaments in my class, and I have found them utterly delightful.  First off, they take no longer than 3 minutes to complete, assuming you don’t go best 2 out of 3 (even with twenty-something kids in the room).  Second, they get the kids out of their seats for a few minutes, which is always a bonus.  Lastly, they are a refreshing break from the content and they are absolutely hilarious.  I’ve yet to host a tournament that didn’t involve at least one kid that couldn’t seem to grasp that it’s “One, two, three – shoot!”, and after several failed attempts the entire class is usually in stitches.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!

 

 

I hate the first day of school

One week of school is in the books.  Well, technically not a full week of classes since we started on Wednesday, but the amount of tired I am parallels the level of fatigue that normally sets in from a typical five-day week.

Let me just say that I do not like the first day of school.   I tossed and turned all Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  If I could ballpark the total amount of sleep I got that night, I’d say it was somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours.  This is my 6th year of teaching, yet having a restful evening the night before the opening day of school continues to elude me.  The first day of school contains far too many unknowns, which causes my angst-meter to skyrocket, making sleep impossible.  Bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, I arrived at my school roughly 40 minutes before the first bell.

In 7th grade, we have the kids for an hour and a half of what is called “extended homeroom”.  During that time, I have to greet students at the door, get them seated, introduce myself, assign them lockers, help them open the lockers, review the code of conduct, discuss rules and expectations for the 7th grade hallway, tell them the schedule, show them where they will eat lunch, and explain to them what we will do in case of a fire, tornado or lockdown procedure.  It’s an incredible amount of information to cram into 90 minutes, not too mention that I’m really stretching the limits of 7th grade attention spans by going over so much material in lecture format.  Most of my extended homeroom was spent showing students how to open their lockers, even though they had them on the 6th grade hallway.  After two or three failed attempts by a student, I would swoop in and work my magic.  When the locker opened, each kid would inevitably ask, “How did you do that?”, to which I simply replied, “I’m fly like that”.

But the two things I hate most about the first day is going over rules and expectations, and the fact that I do not know any of these 80-something faces looking at me.  Don’t get me wrong – I understand the value of reviewing the expectations that I have for the class along with the consequences that I will administer if those expectations are not met.  However, running through that same song and dance four times in a day becomes quite tedious.  I much rather prefer a normal class day where I talk WAY less and serve more as a facilitator to the students’ learning.

As I mentioned, the awkwardness of those first classes is unnerving; the kids don’t know me, and I don’t know them.  Neither of us is completely sure how the other is going to act or react.  The best part of teaching is the relationships that are built with students, but at this point those relationships have yet to form, and we are really just twenty-something strangers together in a room.

With all that being said, we made it.  Even though we are just three days into the year, I feel as though I know my students SO MUCH BETTER than I did a week ago.  Some of their personalities have begun to emerge through our discussions and interactions.  I can already tell that I have a lot of eager learners as well a handful of students who are going to be more difficult to reach.  Either way, I’m excited to begin working with all of them.

The highlight of the week for me came on the second day of homeroom when I read aloud to my kids for ten minutes from Sharon Flake’s Bang!.  For anyone unfamiliar with the book, it’s a pretty easy read that starts off with a bang (pun intended) as we learn immediately via a flashback how the narrator’s brother was shot and killed.  My students did an excellent job of listening and responding to the questions that I posed to them as I read.  When I finished, we talked about how much I valued the importance of giving them time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I told them that they were going to get opportunities to get lost in a variety of different genres over the next year.  We discussed the ways in which readers preview potential books, and how they set about choosing one to read.

Then the kids got out of their seats and perused my classroom library, which I am quite proud of, and chose a text that appealed to them.  Finally, my homeroom read independently for 6 minutes (we were pressed for time).  More than half of my students asked for bookmarks that they could personalize so that they could continue reading their book the next time we met.  On Friday, this same group read for nearly 10 minutes during the end of homeroom, and several more left bookmarks in their novels.  I couldn’t have been more pleased with how well this group dove right into the independent reading initiative in just two quick days.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the upcoming school year is high.

Why my classes don’t finish whole class novels

“We’re not going to be reading this book together as a class anymore this year,” I told my students after finishing up a chapter somewhere in the middle of Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After.  We had read a little over half of the book together in class over the past 9 weeks, but the unit and quarter were coming to an end, and there just wasn’t time left to finish the rest of the novel.

“Why aren’t we going to finish the book?” a young man in the back asked.

I hadn’t reached this decision easily.  I knew my students would be confused as to why their teacher wasn’t going to finish reading a book to completion with them.  Most likely, this was the first time a teacher had proposed such a move. It felt as weird to me saying it as I imagine it did to my students hearing it.

“Remember I gave you all a poll last week in Google Classroom asking you if you wanted to continue with our regular independent reading times or just read the class novel together?” I said. “And over 87% of you said that you wanted to keep reading books of your own choice several days a week.”

Heads slowly began to nod.

“Well,” I continued. “If you want to read your own books in here, then we don’t have enough class time together to dedicate to reading the class novel to its entirety as well. However, if you would like to finish After Ever After, you can continue reading it during our scheduled independent reading times.”

My students appeared fairly satisfied with this logic.

Before I go on, I need to pause and set a little context in relation to my school.  I have one class set of each novel that we read together.  That means I have 25 copies each of After Ever After, A Long Walk to Water, The Giver and Bronx Masquerade.  I have over 80 students, which means that I cannot send home a copy of each book with each of them and assign reading homework each night.  It just can’t happen; our school doesn’t have the resources, and I cannot ask my students’ parents or guardians to purchase copies these books.  If my students are going to read those aforementioned texts, then the reading must occur in my classroom during school hours.  To be honest, reading our class novels eats up a lot of time – nearly 40% of it to be exact.

As I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about not finishing our first novel of the year together as a class.  I was thrilled at how well the students had bought into the independent reading, but I also felt nervous about breaking course from such a commonplace practice in English classrooms as the class novel.  I feared my fellow Language Arts teachers on the hall would judge me when they learned that I had stopped at page 166 of Sonnenblick’s book instead of page 272 (where it ends), that I had cheated my students out of the experience of completing a book.

However, something interesting happened the next day in class when students went to grab their independent reading books for the work session: half of the students in each of my Language Arts classes grabbed a copy of After Ever After.  Most of these same students finished the book on their own over the course of the next few weeks.  We discussed the complicated and incredibly sad ending of Sonnenblick’s book individually as each student finished. I was flattered that so many students WANTED to finish reading this book that I chose for them.

As excited as I was to see half of my students devour the final 100+ pages of this novel, I was equally pleased by the decision of the other half to abandon it.  In my previous two years at this school, I had taken all my classes through After Ever After, from start to finish.  But these students who chose to read something else revealed to me what a great mistake I had been making.  For two years I had forced a number of my former students to persevere through a book that they were not enjoying.  Seeing this group of students leave our class novel behind so that they could continue reading their own books gave justification to our independent reading program.  I had provided my students with a glimpse into a novel, and then I had given them the choice to carry on with it or not, rather than dragging half of my rosters through a text that they were not engaged in.

I did the same “experiment” near the end of the second quarter with The Giver by Lois Lowry, and the results were even more astonishing: only 5 of my students in all of my classes opted to stay with the novel.  I immediately felt terrible about making prior students read the whole book; but, I again enjoyed a sense of vindication for my decision to prioritize independent reading this year as I watched the majority of my students leave The Giver behind so that they could move forward with their own texts.

While my classes will no longer read entire novels together, I do want to point out that I fully embrace and still plan to utilize them in my classroom.  Whole class novels are a wonderful way to introduce students to new genres.  They can also be used to teach or reinforce a host of complicated literary elements such as point of view, characterization, theme, setting, plot, etc., and if students are using the same text, they can work together to uncover meaning when dealing with these complex subjects.

But as critical as whole class novels can be to a curriculum, giving students choice and time to read books on their own is equally as important.  Next year my students will be exposed to four highly-engaging whole class novels, but the decision as to whether they finish them or not will be totally up to them.

 

 

Assessing independent reading without using the dreaded reading log

I read every single day.  During the school year, I typically read from a novel before going to sleep each night.  In the morning, I usually ingest news articles between bites of Cheerios and gulps of coffee before heading off to school.  Once summer hits,  I find multiple times throughout the day to leisurely read news, blogs and books.  I’m an English Language Arts teacher; I enjoy reading.

You know what would make reading unenjoyable?   If I had to write down the date, the title and the number of pages that I read along with a short summary.  I would hate to be forced to complete a reading log.  In theory, reading logs are intended to be used to hold students accountable for independent reading; they are meant to assure teachers and parents that their kids are in fact reading for 20 minutes a night in order to promote independent reading.  In reality, though, these logs are actually having the opposite affect on students.  Instead of encouraging an intrinsic love of reading in young people, reading logs inevitably make reading feel more like a chore, another thing that must be done, like making the bed.

inquiries_readinglog-level1_0

Want to remove the joy from reading?  Give your students one of these.

Reading logs take all the fun out of reading.  So why do we still use them in the classroom?  A big reason is the need for assessment, which typically comes with pressure from administrators.  Principals want to see proof that learning is occurring in the classroom. When students are all reading different books, the task of assessing that learning becomes trickier for the teacher.  But notice I said “trickier”, not impossible.  Reading logs are not the answer.   With a little creativity, we can get written responses from students in regards to what they are reading without the mundane request of “What happened in your book today?” (a staple question of any reading log).

I use a number of engaging closing strategies that illicit authentic responses from my students.  A lot of times, they don’t even realize they are being assessed; when it comes to talking about the characters and conflicts from their books, they want to respond.  Below are closers that I regularly use in my classroom to wrap up independent reading time:

  1. Give one piece of advice to a character in your book about a choice or decision that he or she made today.  Make sure that you explain to them why you are giving them this advice and how it is going to benefit him or her.
  2. Change something about a character in your book – it could be how he or she looks, feels or acts.  Explain why you are making this change to this character.
  3. Make a change to the plot of your book.  This change could be major or just something small.  Be sure to explain why you are changing this part of the story.
  4. Write about a scene that happened in your book today, but do it from the perspective of another character (in other words, not the narrator or protagonist).  How did he or she feel about what happened?  Why did he or she feel this way?
  5. Compare a character from your book to someone that you know in real life.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  Why did you choose to compare these two people?
  6. Compare a character from your book to a character from a novel that we have read together in class.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  
  7. Convince someone that he or she should read your book.  Why would he or she enjoy it?  Provide details from the story that help to support your claim. (This is a great one to use to reinforce those argumentative writing skills!)
  8. Pretend that you are a news reporter covering a scene from your book today.  Write a report explaining what occurred.  Where was it?  What happened?  Why? (This website allows students to create a realistic looking newspaper pdf file)
  9. Write a six-word summary about what you read today. (I love using six-word summaries in class!  Here is a great video to introduce this concept to students)
  10. Write a six to eight line rap that summarizes what you read today.  Make sure that the rhymes occur at the ends of each line. (I like making songs and rapping for my students, apologies in advance for the singing)
  11. Write a sentence using the following format: “Somebody wanted to…, but…, so…” (This is a super quick way to get students to write a response to what they have read, and it hits on key ELA skills like writing a succinct summary, using conjunctions, identifying conflicts and resolutions)
  12. Create a 3 to 5 question quiz over what you read today.  Each question must begin with either “How” or “Why”.

The aforementioned strategies can all be used to assess independent reading in the classroom.  And what’s more, I love reading the students’ responses to these questions, and they usually offer me chances to ask follow up questions that deepen our book discussions.  I don’t need a reading log to tell me that my kids are reading; I can tell by how earnestly a student provides genuine advice to a character from his or her book that that student is highly engaged in the novel.

 

 

Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.