No excuses: Build a culture of readers this year

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Teaching students to read is a daunting task. Teaching them to become engaged, habitual readers? That’s overwhelming.

It’s much more manageable to break the task into steps. I outline five of the most common problems and solutions in Hacking Literacy.

And a major inspiration for that book is the work of Nancie Atwell. Her book The Reading Zone discusses the place where nothing exists except the story.

One of my favorite parts of the book comes early on when she lists student responses to a survey. The survey asked students about what helps them get into the reading zone.

The best part of this list is no item feels daunting or out of my control. Not one requires magical skills. That’s a feeling I get when hearing teachers discuss inspiring students to read.

Certain people have it and certain people don’t. I reject that.

But, teachers can often place blame on others. This student can’t read well? Bad home life. She is absent all the time? Admin must be letting her off the hook. He’s spending all his time reading war books? Too many violent video games.

Teaching (and life) is much easier, though, when we focus on the elements that we can control. So for each elements that Atwell’s students have listed, I’ve anticipated the objections. Then, I’ve responded to those objections.

Like most things I write, this is a reminder to myself more than anything else. I’d love to know which of these you struggle with most OR what parts of Atwell’s work you love.

Booktalks

I don’t have a copy of the popular books students want yet.
To be honest, this one doesn’t even require books. I’ve given book talks without having the book there by pulling it up on Amazon. If certain students are going to read on their Kindle anyway, this is OK.

I’ve run out of YA books that I’ve read and can book talk.
Two ideas here. Consider the books written for adults that adolescent readers can manage. I can think of students who would love to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, Mitch Albom, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or, ask your school librarian, another teacher, or students to do the book talks.

Classroom library

I don’t have the funds to fill my classroom library.
There are many places to get low-cost books. I’m going to address the objection through no-cost options, though.

Create a Donor’s Choose account and start a small project. I followed advice from my colleague Casey Fox and Dave Stuart Jr. and started a Donor’s Choose Project. Friends, family, and kind strangers funded three of my projects this year, all within days. The secret is to start small.

Additionally, put out a post on social media explaining your need for books. I did this several years ago, and people reach out to me today through Facebook Messenger about it. Try making a corny joke like I did. It might help.

facebook-classroom-library-post

In-class time to read

I don’t have time to let students “just read.”
Shh…if you say that again, I’ll be forced to alert the NerdCamp squad.

Free choice of books

I have a curriculum to follow.
Cut down on clutter in your curriculum using an 80/20 analysis. Then, give students 10 minutes to read at the beginning of every class. If you feel that you can’t break away from the curriculum. Try the Text Sets approach.

Recommendations from friends and the teacher

What if students become interested in reading a book that is too difficult or too easy for them?

Did you notice the first part of that sentence, “students become interested in reading a book”? Let’s stop there.

Comfort during reading time

I only have traditional desks and chairs.

This is a good point. There is lots of classroom eye candy on the Internet these days. It can create envy towards other classrooms. Some students like sitting on the floor, though. Some might want to stand and lean against a long row of shelves. Then, when someone is discarding a table or a comfy chair, make a small area with comfortable seating.

Writing to others about reading

I’m not sure how this works.
See Atwell’s In the Middle and Jim Mahoney’s Power and Portfolios for how to get students corresponding about books. I also referred to this article from Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey. Students communicate with each other through text today more than ever before. We can leverage that comfort with communicating to get kids talking about books.

Conversations with the teacher

I’m not great at conferring with students.
Here are three statements to get kids talking about their reading. How’s it going? Tell me more. And What makes you think that? Conferring is hard, especially with the many needs of the readers in our classrooms. But those three questions get kids to lead me to where I can best help them.

Watch this brief video

To read next lists

This is so easy to set up, I can’t think of an objection.
Have students carve out a page of their notebook and title it “To read next.” Every time the student encounters an interesting book, the student adds the book to the list. I like ot keep a physical to read next list at home so the next book is right there.

Reading every night for HW

My students won’t do it.
They might not. Some won’t. But it makes sense that this item is number 10 on the list. Because if numbers 1-9 are happening, then it’s much more likely that number 10 will happen, too.

Of course, ensuring that all ten of the items above are happening every day is daunting. But I’m not suggesting that we have to do that. Start with one, be consistent. Then, these elements of reading will have a kind of synergistic effect.

Which of the ten things above do you struggle with most? What parts of Atwell’s work do you love? Tell us in the comments.

Author: Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers. He teaches English and Journalism to students in grades 9-12 at Hightstown High School in New Jersey.

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