No excuses: Build a culture of readers this year

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.

read alouds

Better Read Alouds (with a Video Example)

Read alouds happen in my class nearly everyday. I teach sophomores, some of whom have twelfth grade or college reading levels. Still, read alouds, almost every day. 

Why? Well, language is meant to be heard. Fluent reading comes from hearing fluent readers. Clear writing comes from hearing clear writers. 

In that way, the read aloud is a high value literacy experience. Plus, it engages kids, while requiring very few supplies or special circumstances. As literacy teachers, the read aloud is there for us, every day, a tool we can use in our class. But, it takes work.

Two steps towards improving read alouds: Practice the skill of reading aloud well to students. Create the circumstances that cause the read aloud to help us meet instructional goals. Here are some reminders to myself, followed by a video of me reading aloud to my students.

How to make the most of read alouds

Planning  

We have to know the section of the text that we want to read. Don’t open the book to the chapter that your class is reading and read “for a little while.” I’ve done that, and I drag it on too long. Even if it’s a great book, I select clear start and end point.

As you’ll see in my example below, identifying a “scene” is one option. The opening or closing of a chapter is another option. Or, a conversation between two characters. Students won’t know that more follows if you use your voice to make it feel final.

The read aloud should be the perfect length. Yes, that’s all I’ll say about that. A read aloud that is too short doesn’t have time to build momentum and get students sucked into the narrative. A read aloud that is too long has students wondering when the teacher will end, and unless the story and the reader are truly compelling, it is hard to hold students’ interest.

That may just be my experience. I know that some books when read aloud can keep students attention for a long time.

Purpose

Are you reading aloud because you want students to read the book independently? Because you want students to learn specific information? Because you want to model a specific type of reading (reading a play, perhaps). Or because the excerpt will lead the class into a learning activity–more reading, writing, or scaffolded reading questions. That’s what I show in the example below.

Passion

This is a vague word that, in this case, means we should try our best when reading aloud. Change voices for different parts, characters, narrators, emotions, etc. It doesn’t have to be drastic. But it’s interesting if it is. My teacher Dr. Meixner was great at doing read alouds, and she was teaching 21 and 22-year-old students. I remember hearing her read aloud from Tangerine by Edward Bloor in our reading methods class. Similarly, my teacher Mr. Mahoney had a class that included many exhausted student teachers, yet he still captivated the class with his read alouds. So the passion that we put into read alouds matters a lot. It sticks in the memories of our students.

Plus, this makes it fun. Even when I’m a tired teacher, it’s energizing to do a read aloud and surprise myself with my animation, Students respond to this.

Post

The post-read aloud task should send students back into the text to find something that they noticed. After hearing the words read aloud, students will have an appreciation for the language that they might not get from silent reading. A simple question like “What sentence stands out to you?” works well.

Perhaps the last piece to improving our read alouds, as with any skill, is feedback. In this case, feedback comes in the form of self-reflection (and any comments on this blog post). And let’s be clear, I’m not immune to that unique feeling that comes from watching and listening to myself (Fear? Nausea?). But, I know that it’s essential for getting better. Again, at any area of life.

[Video: Part 1]

[Video: Part 2]

Reflection and notes:

[Side note: the lesson students are working on here is inspired by the 10 Beautiful Sentences project by Matt Morone. Click here to read about it.]

0:15 – 0:20 I tell the class that we will read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye where we gain insight into the meaning of the title. Andrew raises his hand.

“Andrew?”

“I don’t know…I just raised my hand,” he says. Kids are great.

0:30 – 2:00 First, I ramble a bit about the title. Then, I introduce the purpose of our reading, reminding students of their current project. This is finding and identifying powerful sentences in their reading.  I tell students that there is a powerful sentence that I’ve identified in the following excerpt. Next, I provide some context about the scene. 

2:20 – 2:24 “Just look for any sentences that stands out to you as powerful.” This was the task that I set for students. It was too vague. Better would have been to tell students to leave their finger on one sentence that they notice, or even make a light pencil mark next to one sentence. “Look” is too vague of a verb.

2:30 – 3:05 I’m doing my best to differentiate between the two voices, Phoebe and Holden. I do a decent Phoebe, making my voice higher and showing her frustration. Holden sounds too similar, though. Needs more apathy.

*This video was record with my cell phone and a Swivl. At the 3 minute mark, I got a call from an unrecognized number and had to block the call and press record again. Did I mention this was happening in a real classroom on a typical school day?*

Part 2:

0:00 – 0:55 The passage continues, a bit fast. Overall, I’m trying to convey the reflection that Holden is experiencing in this scene.  

0:56 – 1:30 I give a the follow-up task to students:

“Point to a sentence that sticks out to you and explain to the person next to you why you chose that sentence. Literally point to one sentence, read it to the person next to you, and tell them why you picked the sentence. Person closest to the back of the room can share first.”

Here is some redemption for those vague directions in part 1. This is a simple, manageable task that gets kids talking about the language of the passage. That was the purpose of this read aloud.

We finished by hearing three examples from students around the room. They identified the sentence that I had in mind as well as a few others.

So, with intention and practice, the read aloud is another tool we can use to build student literacy skills. Done well, it also helps to build a culture of readers.

What is your favorite text to read aloud? Tell us in the comments.

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