being a teacher, books, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, student driven

Centering Reading Joy in the Virtual Classroom

Our class lists were released yesterday and with it came the excitement for the upcoming year. While it may not look anything like I have ever taught before, the year will still start, the 80 or so students will still arrive, and the work with kids will continue much like it has in other years.

This year rather than having a luxurious 5×90 minutes a week with every child, we are fully virtual for the first quarter at least, a decision I am inherently grateful for. That means that I will see my students 2×70 or 4×35 minutes depending on when I have them during the day. They will have 60-90 minutes of asynchronous work to do as well throughout the week. A huge reduction of time and thus also a huge need to really focus in on what we will do together, the learning journey we will be on. As I sat in a meeting with my fantastic colleagues last week, one thing immediately became clear, we all wanted to preserve independent reading during our live time, but not just that, we wanted to center it in reading joy.

But how do we do that when the students are not right there? When we don’t have the tool of proximity, body language, and being able to physically hand them a book? When the time is much shorter? When we can’t read the room or pull them in for a quick conference? When everything has to be pre-planned, pre-scheduled, and done from afar? Well, there is a way to do so.

We will center it in identity. I have written a lot about how (re)discovering and continuing the development of their reading identity is at the center of the work we do. With tools like our reading identity digital notebook which centers in discovery, goal setting, ad honest reflection, this is the work we do all year. That means that within the first week, our students will do their initial reading survey (slide 13 on) in order to establish a baseline for how they are starting and where they need to go. This also offers me a chance to get to know them and their journey up until now. I ask for their honesty but also know that some students rightfully so don’t trust me yet. After the survey, the very first reading conference we have discusses their answers and helps them evaluate the goal they have set. The survey offers me a place to start and a place for the students to reflect back upon as they grow.

We will center it in our reading rights. As a class, we will create our reading rights much like we have in the past, but instead of being able to post our reasons for why reading sucks or why it is magical, we will do it on Padlet. Students will then work in small breakout groups to notice patterns and decide what type of rights they would like to have as readers in our community. I know there are a few rights that they will have no matter what they come up with; they have the right to choose books that matter to them, they have the right to abandon any book, they have the right to do meaningful work, they have the right to read with others. Every year, the students create fantastic rights that create the foundation for our learning together, to read more about the process see this post.

We will center it in personal goal setting. For several years, I set all goals for students and then grew frustrated when there was no buy-in or little progress on the goal. Now, students set their own goals, determine steps for how they will reach them, and reflect at set times on their progress, fine-tuning what they need to work on and (hopefully) noticing their own progress and developments. (Slide 7 on). Diving into the 7th grade reading challenge and discussing what a goal may be beyond quantity has been instrumental to the work we do as it allows kids to see beyond the page number for worthwhile reading habits. Reading growth comes in many sizes and it is important that we acknowledge, protect, develop and praise that. To see more about our reading goal setting, read this post linked here.

We will center it in choice. Getting books in the hands of kids is at the forefront of our ELA departments mind and in collaboration with our incredible library staff, it will happen. We will book talk books during our live time; I do a quick read of the blurb and give my opinion encouraging kids to write down potential titles on their to-be-read lists. We also have static book recommendations as found in our class hub which is housed on our class website. Our librarian will also be booktalking and highlighting books. Students will be able to request books both from the library and from our classroom collection through a simple Google form (here is what mine looks like) and they will have the opportunity to be “surprised” – adding in additional books they may like with every pick up order. They will then have twice weekly pick-up times where books can be grabbed following safety guidelines. If a child cannot pick up the books, we will find a way to get them to them. Book access is paramount for all kids, no matter their access to transportation. For those looking to book browse and shop safely while in class, please see this post for ideas.

We will center it in time. Even though I will have less live time with students than normal, we will still spend time reading together. For the class that only has me for 35 minutes a day, it will be 10 minutes of uninterrupted reading time (mics off), for those with 70 min in a day, it will be 15-20 minutes. I will be working behind the scenes with kids who may not have books, don’t want to read etc during this time. I will say again; if we say we value reading as one of the biggest components of student growth then we have to spend time on it and not just assign it assuming it will happen. Of course, I will hope that the students will also read outside of class but recognize that for some that will simply not happen. The very least I then can do is make sure they have time to read with us when we are together.

We will center it in talk. Reading conferences usually happen when students are doing their independent reading and while that would still be super convenient to continue, I have a feeling that during that time there will be plenty of “in the moment” things to take care of. So instead, I will ask students to confer with me every two weeks where we will have a private ten minute conversation in regard to who they are as a reader and how their goal is progressing. Not only will it give me a glimpse into their reading life, but it will hopefully also serve as a way to get to know them better. Students will have a choice to do it virtually or via the phone, I wrote more about the set up and process here.

We will center it in read aloud. Using read alouds, picture books in particular, has long been a mainstay in our community. This year is no different as I kick off the year with a picture book read aloud, We Don’t Eat our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins, as a way to dive into what we need to feel safe. I will read it live holding it up to the computer, but as the year progresses, I will scan the pages in so the students can see them in a slideshow while they listen to my voice read it live. Reading aloud bring joy, invites reflection, invites conversations, and offers us a springboard into topics that matter to us; identity, consent, fighting oppression, curiosity and many other aspects of the world. Sharing texts, whether short stories, long form, or picture books, allows us a shared language so we can speak books to one another.

We will center it in time. Building a community centered on reading joy takes time. For some kids they are already invested and ready, others will work on it all year. I know that this year presents additional obstacles that make the road seem even longer, the climb even steeper, yet I can honor every child’s journey by giving them all year to grow. By getting them books. By helping them discover personal value in reading beyond what the teacher asked them to do. I can center our practice in what we know is good for children; choice, time, meaningful work, skill development, community, and access.

We will center it in acceptance and celebration. Our students come to us with so many different emotions tied to reading. I will not help them if all they feel is judged within our virtual walls. I will not help them if I determine their path or tell them how to be a reader. Instead, I can create a space where kids feel that wherever they are on their journey is okay, that however they feel is okay. We will do meaningful work together, we will share read alouds, we will speak about what it personally means to be a reader and develop the skills we need to be stronger readers. We will use reading as a tool of transportation, as a tool of growth, not just in the skills we develop but also in how we view the world. There is room for every child’s reading journey on this mission, there is no one size fits all approach needed.

I know it can be tempting to create a lot of accountability measures in this virtual/hybrid Covid-19 teaching time. I know that it may seem like no big deal if we have kids log every minute, every page. If we ask for adult signatures to prove that they are, indeed, reading like they say they are. If we tell them all to read the same book over and over in order to create classroom conversation. If we ask them to write a short summary, do a small recording, take a quiz every time they finish a book. But what may seem insignificant quickly becomes a potentially damaging requirement. Writing one small summary about a book does not do a lot of harm but having to repeat the process every time one finishes a book can quickly lead to disdain for the reading process itself. Asking kids to log often leads to kids only doing the bare minimum rather than paying attention to when they have the capacity to read longer or the desire to. Asking kids to only read the same books does little to develop their independent reading identity and often makes them liars. The short-term gains from many of these accountability measures are not worth the long-term damage. So rather than focus on the quick accountability tools, take the time to really build the community. To invite the students into the governing decisions. To take stock and change course when it doesn’t work. To continually keep the dialogue open. And to give yourself grace as well. This year for many is not what we had hoped it would be. For many of us we are in entirely new territory. But we got this. We will do our best and then we will return the next day and try again. We don’t need to have all the answers just an idea of where to start.

Building reading joy is possible in virtual teaching, it may just look a little bit different than it has in the past and if there is one thing I know we educators are good at, it is embracing change and making it work. So one step at a time, we got this.

If your district or conference are interested in bringing me in virtually or live throughout the school year, please see information here. I have been supporting teachers remotely and in-person as they plan for meaningful literacy instruction in an in-person, virtual or hybrid model throughout the years and would love to help others as well.

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