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:
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.
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: