How I made time for reading . . . and had one of my best years ever (Part 1)

I‘m ashamed to admit that for many years, I rarely built in any time for independent reading. The extent of independent reading in my classroom was taking students to the library to check out a book, telling them it was due by X date, and then giving students a list of projects from which to choose to prove they had read the book. Aside from the trip to the library, all of this was done outside of class. That’s what independent meant, right? Plus, my students were taking honors English. Shouldn’t they be expected to read outside of class? And did I mention that when I say students picked their own books that what I really meant was that the books had to fit X, Y, and Z criteria?

Fast forward to last school year. In that same course, we spent 30 days in class dedicated to independent reading. Students chose their own books—any book—which they brought into class on our designated reading days. And what did they do during class? They read. What did I do? I read, too. And I shared what I was reading and why. And I conferred with students about their books. And then we talked books, books, and more books. And then students began recommending titles to each other and to me.  For the first time in my career, I started to finally understand what a real reading community felt and looked like.

What changed? 

Looking back, I think it all really came down to experience. The more I saw what was and wasn’t working in my classroom—the types of readers and non-readers my students were and were becoming—I couldn’t not reconsider what I was doing.

Did our independent reading assignments encourage students to read outside of school when they didn’t have to? After all, isn’t that real independence? Again, no, I don’t think so.

Did they do the independent reading I assigned? Maybe, perhaps even most students did. But did assigning a book to read on their own―on top of all the other work I expected them to do―foster a love of reading? I don’t think it did. Did our independent reading assignment do what independent reading is supposed to do―that is, encourage students to read outside of school when they didn’t have to? After all, isn’t that real independence? Again, no, I don’t think so. Students said so much in the reading surveys I asked them to complete. To the question, “How much do you think independent reading experiences in school affect your reading habits outside of school?” students generally answered, “Not much” or “Not at all.” About her previous independent reading experiences in school, one student even admitted, “I picked a book I didn’t know anything about, read a little of the first part, and then Sparknoted the rest to do a project.” (That was an honors student who said that, by the way.)

At the NCTE conference last fall, I attended a workshop with Sheridan Blau who shared some research on student perceptions of reading in and out of school. The results, though unsurprising, were depressing. Students saw a clear divide between reading done in school versus reading done out of school. Bottom line: Students described their in-school reading as “boring,” “academic,” “hard,” while their out-of-school reading was “useful,” “pleasurable,” and “relaxing.” If students went on to become adult readers, it wasn’t because of experiences they’d had in school. If anything, it seemed like students who became adult readers―indeed, lifelong readers―did so despite their school experiences.

As a teacher, I started to understand that I’d been failing my students in some fundamental way.  I was assigning reading, but not fostering a love for it. Then came more questions: How much did I know about my students’ reading lives? Not just what they could do in the classroom or how they could do on a test, but really know them? When my friends and colleagues talk books, I know enough about each of their book tastes to know immediately that one person would love the same book I just read, but another person would hate it. This is what happens when you know about each other’s reading lives. Could I say the same about my students?  Nancie Atwell asks this same question in In the Middle:

Did my students know or admire me as a reader? Would anyone remember me as a teacher who helped them love literature and take it into their lives forever?

I was a reader myself, but how much did my students really know about my reading life? What kind of model for a literate reading life was I?

Around the same time, I became involved in my local National Writing project site. It was there that I was introduced to names like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Donalyn Miller. Reading their writing and thinking about how students become readers and non-readers forced me to question my assumptions and rethink my role as a teacher.

30 days is 6 weeks of instruction. That’s a significant amount of time, especially since I feel like there’s never enough time to begin with. I was always the teacher who had to race to the finish line to fit in more material. But making time was crucial. And as I have learned, 30 days isn’t even enough (6 weeks sounds like a long time, but it’s less than 20% of the school year). I need to make more time. After all, it’s hard not to read what my students had to say about having time to read and not find  a way to make it happen.

So how did I do it? How did I make the time for reading?

Giving up what I love to teach makes room for students to find what they love to read. Which is more important?

REDUCE CONTENT. First, I had to make room. There is no easy way to do this. It means having a serious conversation with yourself and others who teach with you and asking: what is essential versus what is nice but not needed. In making those decisions, I’ve realized that it isn’t just about what I love to teach, but what the kids need. This seems an obvious point, but I know I am guilty of forgetting this. There are some titles I enjoyed teaching very much, and I’m sad that we ultimately let them go. For one reason or another, they just weren’t necessary to kids’ reading lives. Instead, giving up what I love to teach makes room for students to find what they love to read. Which is more important? Both Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle recommend that only 25% of the books students read during a school year should be whole-class novels. The other 75% should be left to student choice: either individual choice or small book club choices. I am definitely not there yet, but inching forward.

I am not naive to think you can just eliminate half of the curriculum. I teach at a highly competitive, high achieving school district. Our courses are packed with curriculum. And like I said, I’m not anywhere close to the breadth of choice that is often recommended. But taking out one title here, one title there—even a small step is a step in the right direction.

TEACH LESS. In addition to removing content, what I have also found helpful is simply doing less with the content we have. Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers and numerous others have warned that one of the surefire ways of killing students’ love for reading is overteaching. This was a hard lesson for me. When I love a book—and there are some titles we teach that I do love—I want to talk, talk, talk about it. I want to analyze it from this point-of-view and that. I want to dive in. What I’ve realized over the years is that my efforts can be counterproductive. By doing too much, I end up taking away the joy of reading and discovery. (Of course, as Kelly Gallagher also reminds us, we can also underteach books, which is just as harmful, but that’s for a different post.)

So with each text, I now ask myself that same question I posed earlier—what is essential? Instead of doing everything with a book, I just choose the most important things that I think the students sitting in front of me need and do those things well. It even helps to rank what I want to do with a book; it brings an immediate clarity to my instructional goals. By reframing my teaching in this way, I’ve shaved off a few days from each unit. What does a few days look like when you add them together over the course of a school year? It starts to get closer to those 30 days we spent reading in class last year.

FOCUS ON VOLUME. This may seem to contradict my earlier points, but here it is. The number one way to improve reading is volume. I need to find ways to get kids to read more books and more often. Period. The only way to do this, though, is to give them quality time during class to read.

I have wonderful students, some of the best you could hope for. They can be curious and funny and generally interested enough to give what you say a chance. And they are good students. What does that mean? It means that when given a choice between reading for pleasure in their spare time and completing the half dozen or so history/math/chemistry/foreign language assignments they have going on at any one time, they will almost always choose their school assignments. They are like us. During the school year, I often experience my own reading drought—periods of time when I’m so inundated with planning and grading that reading for pleasure seems a luxury. And I suffer for it. And so do our students.

In order to achieve the volume of reading students need, they need time. I would love it if my administrator or supervisor gave us more time by reducing a class or taking away a duty.  When the staff gets an email that a faculty meeting has been cancelled, many are thankful for this gift of time. Time is the number one thing teachers are always asking for. Students aren’t very different.

___

Since this post is already very long and I need to get off my soapbox at some point, I’ll end this here. In this post, I established the why and how I made time for reading. In my next post, I’ll explore the second (and fun) part: how I had the one of the best years ever. In particular, I’ll share the nitty gritty of what I did—what my independent reading in my classroom looked like throughout the year including the schedule, structure, and other various components.

As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, comments . . . please leave them below.