Ask our students what makes them hate reading and many of them will say the work that comes after. The reading logs, the essays, the taking notes when reading, the post-its, the to-do’s. Not the act of reading itself. They share their truths year after year and year after year, I wonder how I am going to see whether they really are understanding and learning without making them drown in assignments that make them hate reading. It is a hard balance to find, especially if your students like ours have reading abilities that range from years above grade level to years below.
While the students will be working on other skills with their reading, right now, we are working on increasing stamina and enjoying their books, a skill that some of our students need a lot of work on. When we introduce too much to them to do, that is when they end up not really working on their reading but rather hunting the text for their answer. This is when they start to dislike reading. While being able to disseminate a text and do the heavy work with text analysis is important, I cannot have them do that all of the time, not every time they read. After all, how many adults do that every time they read?
This year, my colleague, Reidun offered up a great idea; the simple notecard. The notecard is unassuming. It is limited in its scope based on its size and it also does not take much time. Rather than writing anything long, which we only do once in a while, when students have been introduced to a teaching point such as writers using emotive language, we then ask them to return to their own self-selected text and look for an example. As they read they find a sentence or two, write it down and hand it to us.
When I have a moment, I am able to quickly scan through to see who got it and who didn’t, make a note of it and then figure out who needs to be in one of our small groups. Who gets it, who doesn’t. The kids spend most of their time reading, rather than taking notes, and I get a chance to peek into their thought process.
As the year progresses, our skill focus will change, our questions will deepen, and yet, offering students time to “simply” read is something that we will continue to protect every single day. The notecard allows me to peek at skills, to inform my instruction, and to collect data. All without causing a major interruption in their time with the text.
While I am lucky in the sense that I don’t have canonical texts I am forced to explore with my 7th graders, I have realized that habit and ease had gotten me stuck in certain texts, that sure, seemed to work for students, but didn’t do much for their exposure to other points of view, nor did it represent all of the lives of the students I teach. Thus a mission for the year began – disrupt the texts I use with students, pay attention to my own selection process, and ultimately create a broader experience for all kids in order for them to have more critical exposure to many perspectives.
So what does that look like for me? Well, it began with two questions; why am I selecting the texts that I am and how can I select others? As I looked at my lists of short stories, read alouds, picture books, and even book talks, I quickly saw a pattern. While my own reading life is fairly inclusive, my academic usage was not. The same texts were used year after year and many of them were predominantly created by white, cisgendered, heteronormative people. Even though I had been trying to purposefully select more inclusive texts! While there were units where the scope had broadened, there was still this dominance, a thread, of the same type of texts used and highlighted.
So for the past few months, I have spent a lot of time on text selection within a few areas. By auditing my habits and my patterns, I found plenty of opportunities to disrupt my own “canon” and also help others find better texts. Here are the areas that I have focused on:
Picture books. Reading a picture book aloud is something sacred to us, and while I have a fairly inclusive picture book collection, I was not really keeping track of which I was choosing and sharing. By having a visual representation of the picture books outside our room I am reminded to look for a broader scope and to include many different perspectives. (To get ideas for great books to read or share, follow my Instagram where I do “live” recommendations as I discover books.)
Read alouds. I have always mostly selected our read alouds based on the merit of the story. Is it a story that will elicit interest and conversation? Will my students be changed after this read aloud? And yet, I did not pay much attention to the author and the identity they represented. Now, the two go hand-in-hand. Questions I use to assess whether a book should be read aloud are many, but a few are: How is this author’s identity represented within the text? How is it different than what my students have already been exposed to? How is the main character different than the last main character we got to know?
Book talks. Once again, random selection was the way I did book talks. Sometimes it was a book I had just finished, other times an old favorite. This meant that I didn’t always remember which books I had book talked and surely did not pay attention to whose stories I was book talking. Now, my system is twofold – I write down the books I plan on book talking and also keep a written poster in our classroom, which I fill in after a book talk. While the poster will need to be replaced soon, it allows me to see the bigger picture of what I am blessing through book talks. Just looking at it today, I realized that I had not book talked any books featuring characters from within the LGBTQ community, which is something I plan on rectifying.
Short stories and text excerpts. This is where I needed the most disruption. I had some great short stories that captured the interest of students, but most were by white authors. I simply had not paid attention to this part of the selection process and had instead just grabbed stories others had recommended or stories that I knew. And this is part of the problem I think for many of us; we recommend the same stories over and over, we remember the same stories being used and somehow they then receive more merit as legitimate texts than they really deserve. Now, my selection is focused on the author’s identity, the main character’s identity, as well as whether the story fits our purpose. By using fantastic short story collections such as Funny Girl, (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, and Hope Nation, as well as first chapters from great #ownvoices books I am ensuring that my students are meeting new fantastic authors and stories that will hopefully not only better represent their own experiences and identity, but also the identities of others whom they may not know.
So what can you do if you want to start disrupting your text choices as well? The first would be to follow the work the movement #DisruptTexts and the women behind it do, but then also audit yourself. What are you reading? Book talking? Sharing? And using with your students? Whose identities and experiences are being represented as the norm? Whose voices are left out?
Read more inclusive texts and start a document to track texts you may potentially use with students and their purpose. We have a shared mentor text document as a team where we can drop text in as we find them. Create visuals that show you just what you are blessing and share and take the vow to do better, to notice your own patterns and change the texts you use. While I still have a long way to go, I am already feeling better with the intentionality of the texts I am exploring with students, as well as the opportunities we still have to do better.
“I don’t read” has been a refrain heard loudly in our classroom for the last three weeks. Several students have informed me that reading is not something they do. Not something we can get them to do. And they have been right. For the past three weeks, these few kids have stood by their words, proven them to be true and we have pondered what the solution may be.
I bet those students are in your room as well.
So what have we done, when children loudly claim this identity of children who will not even pick up a book? Who will not even open a book? Who will not even book shop? Who will not even give it a try?
We start with what we have a lot of; patience.
I think of the kids who come to us declaring loudly how much they hate to read and how many negative reading experiences they must have had to get to that point. How many times they must have felt defeated in the face of a book and now have found a way to protect themselves. When you refuse it is much easier to not get hurt. When you refuse it is not to anger the teacher, but o shield yourself from more embarrassment, more harm, more hurt. How every moment we do not force them to but instead offer them an opportunity for enticement is one more moment of negative counteracted by a moment of positive. Of how we tread lightly, offering up multiple opportunities to read every single day, but never shaming, never demanding.
Instead treating their refusal as the gift that it is; a view into the minds of a child who feels like the act of reading is not something that is safe for them.
So we treat it with care. With gentleness as we whisper our repeated question; how can we help? And we offer them an array of enticing books, leave them at their fingertips and walk away. Pop up books, picture books, graphic novels and other safe books placed within their reach with no judgment wrapped around them, but instead only an opportunity to try.
And we repeat that motion every day, reminding them that they should read but leaving it at that. Pushing books toward them and holding ourselves back from rushing over there if they do, indeed pick one up to flip through the pages, instead allowing them time to sit in the moment with a book, and not a teacher that tells, “See, I told you they weren’t all bad.”
And we speak books with them. Including them as a full-fledged reader in our classroom, sharing recommendations and not giving up despite their many shutdowns. Despite their many refusals. We invite them to book shop, to abandon books, to read books that matter to them even if they are not yet reading. There is no punishment attached to not being a reader who reads actively in our room, why should there be?
And we repeat this every single day for as long as it takes. And we smile, and we invite, and we try to help them feel safe. To see reading as something that is not hurtful, but instead a moment of quiet in an otherwise overwhelming world of noise.
And every day as they declare that they do not read, we acknowledge their truth and then offer them a word of hope, “yet…they do not read yet.” And that’s okay because we have a whole year to go.
Today was the second day of school. the second day of trying to get to know these incredible kids that have been gifted to us. The second day of trying to establish the seeds for the habits that will carry us through the year, hopefully leading us to a year where they leave feeling like this year was worth their time, that this year made a difference.
Today was the day of one of our big fundamental lessons; when reading is trash or magic. I shared my past reading mistakes in teaching, we shared when reading sucks or when it is lit (student choice of words). As the post-its crowded the whiteboard, the questions and statements inevitable came. Will we have to read books you choose for us? Will we have to write every time we read? Will we have to do post-it notes? All things that in the past, I would have answered yes to but now the answers are different. You always choose your books, even in book clubs, you will have plenty of choices. You will not always write after you read, sometimes you will, and because of the work of teachers before me, you will be better at it than ever before. And post-its? Sometimes, when it makes sense, but not every time and not at home. Only here because at home I just want you to work on your relationship with reading, the skills teaching that will happen in class.
As we finished our conversation we merged into what their reading rights are this year. the things that I will not take away. The rights they have as individuals on a reading journey. This is not my idea, nor something new, but once again the work of others who have paved the way for my better understanding of what developing student reading identity really looks like. As we discussed what rights they would have and what they meant, I wrote an anchor chart, a reminder that will hang all year so we don’t forget just what we can do together. What choices we may have. As we went down the list, the relief was palpable, the excitement grew. Even some of the kids who had not so gently told me how much they hated reading right away, looked less scared, less set in stone as we talked about what this year would like.
And so this is where we stand tonight… Our very first anchor chart to remind us of what it means to be a reader that is honored within our community. What it means to be a reader that already has a reading identity, that we will continue to develop together, honoring everyone wherever they are on their journey, rather than forcing our well-intended decisions down over the top of kids. Perhaps, once again, this year kids will develop a better relationship with reading, will grow as readers, will grow as human beings. What more could we hope for when it comes to teaching?
So much of the work we do in room 235D comes down to students discovering new facets of their reading identity. Whether it means the books they like to read, when they read, or even if they read, all of the work that comes with being a reader is part of what we do.
I believe in meaningful goal setting with kids, but I also know that much like us, adults, kids are great at setting goals and then doing nothing to pursue them. They are great at having us set goals for them, relinquishing ownership so that they don’t really need to do anything to work toward them. And so our work has been centered on developing their reading identities through personal goal setting and it starts with the introduction of the 7th-grade reading challenge. What used to be a quantity based challenge is no longer “just” that but now asks students to really think of the reader they are right now and how they would like to grow as they move through 7th grade.
The challenge starts with self-reflection. I need to know more about them as readers, but I also need to know how well they know themselves in order to support them well. We do this with a simple survey about their reading habits which they start to fill out on the first or second day of school.
After that, we unveil the actual challenge: Set a goal to begin the year, while you are expected to read at least 25 books this year if this is not a stretch for you, then set a different goal. That goal can be a quantity goal or a habit goal. They can choose whatever books they want to read, I will recommend many different types of books but not force them to read different genres. We will, instead, read different genres as mentor texts in our work.
Once the survey is filled out and the challenge has been revealed, we meet one on one. I ask questions based on their answers and together we craft a meaningful reading goal for them. This can be anything from reaching 100 books in a year to a goal of simply finding a book they would like to actually read. Because I teach so many different readers, their goals will always be different. And there needs to be room for all of them, as much as I want every child to read many, many books, sometimes where we start is simply by helping them want to read and that needs to be celebrated as an accomplishment as well. They write the goal down on this sheet and we glue it into their reader’s notebook, that way it is accessible when I meet with them again.
A few of the questions that I ask to help them uncover or further dissect their reading identity are:
Who are you as a reader? This question is the baseline of all of the work we do. Often times kids who have negative experiences with reading will not know what to write, which tells me that they are not aware of the facest of being a reader. This then becomes a question that tells me throughout the year how they are developing.
Where do you read?
When do you read?
What do you read?
How do you read?
How do you choose books?
How do you abandon books?
When do you abandon books?
Who are your reading people?
What do you do when you finish a book?
And then we start with independent reading time, every day, every class, every kid. And I will check in with them as quickly as I can to see how they are doing. They reflect at least quarterly on their goal, if not more. We reflect together and with peers. We celebrate all accomplishments so that all kids can see themselves as accomplished. And we continue to work on what it means for them to be a reader. One text at a time, one conversation at a time, one child at a time.
For years, I couldn’t understand why my own students weren’t growing as readers. Why the same names showed up at our data meetings as kids who were failing to progress. Why some kids made the yearly growth and others sat stagnantly. I was trying, using the framework of balanced literacy, yet I didn’t see how my own lack of knowledge, my own lack of tools, was directly leading to them not growing. How, although I had the components in place, there was so much more I could be doing for all of the kids. Instead, I looked outward hoping that surely someone else; special ed, reading specialists, ESL support, someone must know how to reach these kids. How to teach these kids.
I am a classroom teacher. Every day, I am responsible for not just the literacy lives, but also the well being of more than 100 students. Every day, I am expected to provide the very best instruction that I can to every child that walks through our door.
Despite their mood. Despite their situation. Despite their past interactions with our educational system. Despite their life circumstances that may or may not stand in their way.
I am the facilitator of what is meant to be meaningful literacy experiences that will suit all of their needs. Every day. Every class. Every child.
My job is no different than so many others. This is what I became a teacher to do, I am supposed to provide my students with what we know works within literacy instruction: time to engage with meaningful reading and writing, including time to read and write, supported and explicit instruction, personalization to meet their needs through one-on-one conferring or small group instruction. Utilizing an inclusive classroom library filled with books that I have read, coupled with visits to the school library (with a certified librarian). I am supposed to develop my skills so that every child has a chance to not just survive but succeed within our classroom. That’s my job. That’s our job.
And yet, in many classrooms, kids are not getting these foundations of literacy. They are not getting time to read. They are not surrounded by books. They are not being provided personalized instruction to suit their needs. Instead, they are forced to sit in front of computers who quiz them on their skills, read through basal texts that allow for little to no personalization, told that only books that fit their level is allowed reading material. Taught by teachers who are trying so hard yet are meeting resistance every step of their way, whether from the systems, the decisionmakers, or even their own lack of training.
And then we wonder why so many kids end up in tier 2 or tier 3 interventions?
So this year, I will continue to examine my own practices as the teacher of Tier 1. I will make sure that the instruction I am providing is effective, focused, and research-based. I will make sure that my foundations are in order and also well-taught so that kids have a chance to grow in our classroom. I will disseminate my own practice before I look outwards. And I encourage other teachers, other decisionmakers, other schools to do the same. If too many kids are in intervention, then foundations are missing in our classrooms. If too many kids are not making growth, then we look at what is happening with us first. And we look at it from a systems place. Are systems in place to support kids on their reading journey? Are systems in place to helps kids develop their reading identity? Are systems in place to teach the joy of reading and not just the skills? Which systems stand in their way of success? Which systems harm rather than help?
And that’s where we start. Not with pull-out, but with better in class instruction. Not with intervention, but with reexamination. With a commitment to the best classroom instruction, we can provide, supported by the administrative decisions that are being made. Perhaps a lofty dream, but a dream worth pursuing nonetheless.