On Venn diagrams: What does reading look like in the real-world?

What does reading look likein the real world-Kylene Beers posted this on her Facebook page this afternoon:

When I finish reading a book, I want to think about it and talk about it, and then I want to start reading my next book. Never have I closed the covers, sighed, and said to myself, “Now, now I want to make a Venn Diagram.”

Yes, I know the value of scaffolds such as Venn Diagrams. They do help us think about how particular information is like (or not like) other information. And at some point, showing students how to make one, as a way to think more deeply about two characters or two books or two issues, is probably a good idea. If I had to write a review of a book and I knew that review was going to be published, I might sketch out a Venn Diagram to make sure I wasn’t missing details regarding how Atticus in Mockingbird varies from Atticus in Watchman. Maybe I’d do that . . .

But honestly, when I finish reading, I don’t rush to draw those overlapping circles. I mull over what I’ve read; I find a friend who has read the same book; we talk about it; we turn in the text to favorite passages; we find where we agree and disagree; we reread sections that meant a lot to us or were confusing; we talk about how this book helps us understand something about ourselves, others around us, or the world. We talk about the questions it has raised. And when that’s all said and done, then I hunt for another book. I don’t finish one book and rush to make a diorama, complete a dialectical journal, or make that Venn Diagram. I didn’t do any of those things one time this summer. Not once. Actually, I didn’t even think about doing those things. I just read more books.

Already, barely hours into this new school year, I’ve seen the assignment that requires all students in one sixth grade class to complete a journal entry each night after reading for thirty minutes. This journal entry must include a short summary, a rating (with a reason) of what was read that night, and a Venn Diagram. All students. Each book. Each night. A summary. A rating. A Venn Diagram. As someone who loves to read, I can’t think of a worse assignment. And if I were someone who had not yet discovered the joy of reading, this would convince me I never wanted to give this thing called reading a try.

For folks who want to read more about what we do to discourage reading and encourage aliteracy, you might want to read and discuss a chapter I wrote for a book titled Into Focus: Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers. You can find this chapter online at http://bit.ly/1IvZBLN. It’s a summary of several years of research I did on the topic, and it also references several other studies on aliteracy. You can find a similar chapter in When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do.

And to the parent who asked me what my response would be to her sixth-grader’s reading assignment, my response remains: “Just say no.”

There is so much to say. Where to begin . . .

My first reaction? Guilt, and a bit of shame.  Though I haven’t required nightly Venn diagrams, I know that I’ve assigned work that was just as taxing and very likely, unnecessary. I think back to several years ago when we assigned study guide questions to go along with Life of Pi for summer reading. Though students enjoyed the book, they complained—and not so quietly—about the study guide questions. Did they do better on the summer reading test? Yes. Did they retain more details for the essay they went on to write about the book? Yes. But for many of those students, the experience of reading Life of Pi this way left a bad taste, made students bitter, even resentful toward the book.  And perhaps, toward reading in general.

(Of course, I understand that there are other deeper problems with giving a test and writing an essay with a summer reading book. More on that and the purpose of summer reading in a later post.)

As I read Kylene Beers’ post, I’m struck by how much sense it makes. Then why do we do it? Why continue to assign work that is so removed from what readers do in the real world? Though I can’t speak for everyone, I know for me that a lot of it has to do with fear.

Without written evidence of their reading, how can I know whether or not students have really read the material? This speaks to a second, related issue, which is lack of trust. If students aren’t required to come to class with physical evidence of their reading, how can I trust that they’ll read carefully enough—or at all? I can always tell who’s read by what students say during discussions, but what about the students who don’t participate? Are they shy?  Or are they trying to fly under the radar because they didn’t read, silently praying I won’t call on them? How can I keep those students accountable? And what could I put in the gradebook as evidence of their reading—or lack thereof?

The problem is that teaching from a place of fear isn’t usually best practice.

And of course, there are other, better ways of asking students to show and share their thinking—ways that don’t interrupt the immersive pleasure of reading that’s required to create lifelong readers. One way, as Kylene Beers mentions above, is through the simple act of talk. Like Kylene, the first thing I want to do when I finish a book—or even as I’m reading it—is to talk to others about it. So the challenge I face is this: How can I create more opportunities for students to talk, and for me to listen?

A few days ago, I had the chance to talk through this question with a writing project colleague who shared with me how she structures her literature circle groups to foster more student-led discussion. I think I tend to underestimate the value of talk. Evidence of learning doesn’t always have to be written. Students need just as many opportunities to practice talking face-to-face, to see talking as a way to express, clarify, and reconsider their ideas—just as they do when they write. I need to do a better job remembering that.

There is so much more to say about Kylene’s post and on this topic in general. But for now, I’m just thankful for people like her who remind us of what it means to be a reader in the real world, and how we need to stop and think about how our classroom practices mirror real world reading habits—and ultimately, how what we do in the classroom can foster a love of reading. Or kill it.