Nurturing the Being and Becoming of a Reading Life

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On September 30th, Kylene Beers posted a memo to teachers on Facebook with advice on how we can talk to administrators about the value of independent reading programs.  She includes three research articles that teachers could share with principals. Then, she goes on to say this:

And then remind your principal that you aren’t building an entire curriculum around students reading choice novels each and every day for each and every minute. Instead, independent reading is a part of your day; it’s when they practice independently — with books they choose — the reading skills and strategies you’ve been teaching them.

After reading Mrs. Beers’s post, I felt so relieved, so validated to have a scholar-researcher-teacher, whom I respect and follow, to support the spirit of the independent reading program that I have developed for my junior high students.

However, the dark history of independent reading programs like AR, choice-by-Lexile/letter, and reading logs looms. I feel like any independent reading that is part of the curriculum is doomed because of the measurement discourse that consumes education. Thus, whispers of doubt about what I am doing haunt me. Am I nurturing/reviving reading lives or am I committing readicide (Gallagher) when I make choice-reading integral to what we do in our class?

An Independent Reading Program

For the first five weeks of school, students read choice novels in class, and I asked them to apply/transfer strategies and concepts we practiced together to their own reading experiences. I watched them do this in class to offer support and feedback in their own reading progress forms, which they created and personalized in a Google form. The next four weeks, we read a shared text in class to learn a few more strategies, and I asked students to transfer/apply these strategies to their reading at home in their form. I envisioned this Google form as a site where readers track their own progress for the entire school year. 36 weeks of reading choices and comprehension/analysis practice in one place that they own and manage (and share with me). Titles, authors, genres, forms, reading highs, reading slumps, mirrors, windows, sliding doors — an artifact of a reading life being and becoming.  Here’s what it looks like after 9 weeks or 43 days of school, which is pretty close to what I envisioned:

This reader is using Notice and Note to make claims about her reading and practice text citation.

Imagine the infamous “data digs” with this beauty, but, even better, imagine students doing the data analysis — reflecting on their choices, experiences, and discoveries about themselves and reading and the world. That’s what we do every four weeks. The reflection helps us celebrate and tweak our practice so that we can continue to stretch into new reading experiences.

The data will change as students’ lives and needs change. Why they read–pleasure, escape, interest, research, insight–will change. The Google form is one way to track, monitor, and reflect on all that real readers do over time.

Now for the Whispers of Doubt

For students with established reading lives, I am asking them to slow down a little bit — a break from voraciously devouring book after book — to notice something. By no means do I  suggest that every time students read that they have to write a response. No. As a reader, I don’t do this, but I do write notes on Goodreads or Instagram a few times a week after I read — to reflect, share, process, to track my books. This form is their space for all of that. Still, this shift was/is uncomfortable for some readers. I am asking them to stretch, even disrupt,  their comfy independent reading routine.

In conferring with students, I hear that they are discovering that they can still get lost in a book AND use their readerly voice to interact with the text, to practice the thinking and analytical skills we are doing in class.

To be fair, however, many of the established readers are also conscientious students who just do what the teacher says (so I check in with them often to talk about what they love about the books).  Still, there are a few who are just now trusting me enough to try something new because they didn’t buy that the tracking, reflecting, conferring could help them become stronger readers. Reading was already part of their identity, and the test scores proved that they were “good” readers. What could a reading program that asked them to stretch into new genres, forms, topics, cultures, and ways of responding possibly offer them?

The whispers of doubt are a little louder with the less-established readers; the dissonance is especially unsettling in the form of student voices asking me this: “Next quarter, do we have to keep doing the responses?”  This sentiment mostly comes from readers still licking wounds from the days when they’d have to stare at a book waiting for the timer to go off or assuaging their conscience from the days when they’d forge their parent’s signature on a reading log; the reading progress form is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. I get that. Some readers haven’t felt the beauty of the reading flow. They haven’t learned the difference between liking a book and gleaning value from a book (Readicide, 57). They think this form is something to endure; IR is not essential to a reading education; and, if they keep refusing that it/I would go away.

If I truly believe that a reading life is something we have to nurture within and beyond the classroom, I have to help every reader find the joy, appreciate the value, experience satisfaction.  It’s nurturing a reading “life” not a reading grade.

Book groups are next, and I hope the reading groups will do what I could not for our reading resistors. We are diving into contemporary issues in America and beyond. Students will compare a book representation to research-based representations. The purpose will still be to stretch our reading lives, but it will also be more project-based and collaborative.

Assessment 

Inevitably, any sort of curriculum that values independent reading leads to questions of evaluation: How many books should I read? How many minutes should I read? How many days a week do I have to read? How teachers handle this is, in my view, what shifts nurturing a reading life toward readicide.

I know students just want to know how they’ll be evaluated, but some while some are really asking how little they have to do or trying to figure out if they can fake their way through, others are asking how they should organize their time. I don’t want independent reading to be about holding readers accountable or about a good grade. I want something fundamentally different. A reading life. And a rich one at that. A life that comes with deliberate choices.

I tell students this: “What, when, and how much depends on you; it depends on the book; it depends on your schedule; it depends on how you like to read — so much depends.” I try to undermine the measurement discourse with conversatipns about places to read, snacks, times of day. We actually talk about this in class so that we can try on different routines.

Instead of reading homework in the form of worksheets or projects, I just ask that students make some time to read each day understanding that it might not always be possible. I also ask that, a few times a week, readers write a short response in their progress forms to 1) document their progress (title, author, genre, form) and 2) to practice some of the skills we do in class, to see what they notice in their own books.

I encourage page or chapter goals instead of time because so many students have been trained to put in 10 or 15 minutes only to have never actually read. Some students have said that when they have a chapter goal that they often read further because, well, chapters have mini-cliffhangers.

Essentially, nurturing a reading life is complex, but I want to stretch students from their being to their becoming. Their personal progress sheets help me to do that, but I am all-to-aware that my intentions can be misinterpreted and that I am fighting the ghosts of readings past, so I really try to personalize the assessment process.

Once a week, I check the reading form for insight into their choices, experiences, patterns, and application of our work together. I look for patterns across responses and use that to inform my teaching and conferences with students. I know who I have to spend more time with and who needs a new book.

I don’t “grade” this, per se. I assess. I give feedback each week about what I am noticing, then I meet with certain students who are struggling with finding time to read or who need help in their responses transitioning from retelling to entering a conversation about or commenting on what their books are doing and saying. If students are not reading, not responding then they will not have evidence to point to of how they are developing in their independent practice, how their reading life within and beyond the classroom is growing.

When it comes to the end of the term (when we confer about final grades), students who are not reading beyond the classroom will simply not have evidence of reading growth, which will impact their grade. This will also show me, them, and their parents that we have to do some problem-solving. I just cannot accept the death of a reading life.

I am committed to reading in class. It’s an environment in which I can set the tone. I cannot control what happens at home, but I know that what we do in school has to transfer beyond those walls. Otherwise, we are just doing school and not educating.

For hope and sustenance, I have Kylene Beers and these words from Kelly Gallagher:

6 Replies to “Nurturing the Being and Becoming of a Reading Life”

  1. This is a thought provoking post for me. I am a huge supporter of student choice, so much so that a colleague and I are presenting at a local South Carolina conference on the topic. In my (small) department, we are embracing giving students choice over both what they read, and how they are assessed. We even integrated several new electives this year, so that students have a choice of how they are approaching texts.

    Clearly there is a benefit to integrating choice and fostering the development of a student’s independent reading life. What is causing me to pause and think on this is equity and access to both time and resources. For example, I have 2 students, who’s situations are all fairly generic in a sense, who I think will help me to articulate where I am stuck. (I am mentioning race and gender here because I think it is relevant to the achievement gap that goes hand in hand with equity and access.) Student 1 is a white female student, who is the child of 2 doctors and takes several AP courses. She does not have a job, and is an elected officer of student council. She reads often reads and discusses books with her father, and they take turns choosing books to read together. Student 2 is an African American male, who’s mother works 2 jobs and is a single parent. He is a captain of both the football and basketball team and has a scholarship to attend high school, and is working on an athletic scholarship to help pay for college. His mother did not finish college; the student has to work in order to pay for college applications and standardized tests. He has almost never read a book outside of school, and when asked to do an assignment for creative writing, he could not recall a story that was read to him as a child. Obviously, these are two opposite ends of the spectrum, and the contrast seems almost hyperbolic, except we all know this is reality. The first student clearly has this independent reading life that is supported by her access to resources, those being time, family support and the books themselves. The issue, for me, is how to help the second student foster and independent reading life. He has such limited free time, that in the time he does have, he wants to see his friends, which is essential for obvious reasons. He lacks the obvious access to resources that student 1 has.

    So now to my questions: how do we make room for student 2 to have this independent reading life? Yes, of course give time in class, but is that really reading outside of school? How do we do this in a way that helps to close this achievement gap? Clearly, there are so many facets that are outside of our control, as teachers, but how do we use what we do have to help these students realize the power of reading? We all agree this is important, but how do we support our students who may not currently, or realistically able to do this yet? How do we help them a) find the time/access to resources c) the desire to spend that time in a novel? I am having a hard time taking this principle and turning it into a practice that will work for student 2. Again, I think this is hugely important, and am struggling to figure out a way in helping some of my student implement this in a way that is practical.

    1. I saw this painful video of a teacher in a field with a group of students telling students who could answer “yes” should take two steps forward. As two-thirds stepped forward, a third was left standing still. Then, the teacher asked the two-thirds to turn around and look at the third still standing there – to look back at them. So unethical to re-traumatize, shame students in this simulation about privilege. Your student 2, Kelly Gallagher’s students, 80% of the students in my school (last year) do not have the sort of privilege as student 1. There is no easy way to bridge the divide. However, I can see it narrowing if every teacher who had student 2 valued the reading life in a similar way so that there are not mixed messages about what literacy is and can do. It should not be a privilege but a right.

      Somewhere, somehow student 2 did not discover how a book/poem/article can be the teacher he needs, the escape/solace, the source of insight to endure (if he’s never read a book beyond the classroom). Maybe now, his life is so packed with responsibilities that it seems impossible to imagine him breaking out a book of r.h.sin poems before bed, but if wants to understand women, he might. Maybe he has no use for Shakespeare beyond the walls of the classroom, but he might have use for an essay by Ta-ne-hesi Coates. I can’t be sure. I just keep trying and hope that the next English teacher will continue to show that a reading life helps us make sense of our life and the life we share with others. I don’t know about student 2, but I need all the help I can get making sense of it all.

      Sorry, no real answer here, but it’s important to keep seeking solutions to this barrier of privilege. Thanks for getting me thinking, Kate.

      1. I saw that video too. I had to turn it off. Funny you should mention Coates, because today I gave this student a copy of his Between the World and Me, thinking that may be relevant and interesting enough too. He was thrilled and I hope he will read some of it, even if its a part of it. Thanks for the post and the reply!

  2. Thank you for this. The YouTube video shows an elegant solution to the problem of assessment. I have one class where about one third of the kids arrive very late due to transportation from vocational programs at other schools and I have had trouble staying caught up with their reading lives.

    1. I completely understand. I don’t have a first period class this year, but because we read the first 15ish minutes of class, the late arrivers miss this.

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