Imagine if you will…
EXT. HIGH SCHOOL CAMPUS – EVENING
It is ‘Back to School Night’ at The American Community School of Abu Dhabi. A crowd mingles about waiting for the bell to signal the first round of 8-speed dating sessions with their child’s teachers.
INT. HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH CLASSROOM – EVENING
Background music plays as parents of AP Language and Composition students filter into the room. Small talk of whose child is whose and “how was your summer?” floats in the air. The white board reads:
“If you want to be a better reader, read more. If you want to become a better writer, read more.”
We all have some variance of this scene near the beginning of a new academic school year – an opportunity for parents to get a small taste of the courses and teachers their children engage with daily.
I am never nervous about talking to parents. What does make me anxious is that what I have to say won’t be received in the way I want it to be…that 10 minutes won’t be enough to show the value of reading…that parents will leave more confused than inspired. Because my goal this year is to instill a sense of urgency for why reading is so important, and why I need their support to instill a desire to read (again).
Because if you ask most students they will say that they read a lot when they were in elementary school and some carried it on into middle school. However, when you get to high school that number dwindles. HS students mainly cite the reason of “time” as being the main factor affecting their lack of reading. I get it – life is busy. But having not enough time to read…that is a choice. And in order to support students in making better choices, I decided to go all out on making reading visible in my classroom.
- dedicate time to individual silent reading (15 min. of an 80 min. class)
- provide time for book talks (student and teacher)
- keep a list of books read/want to read (number of books and genres)
- set goals for the year
But then I realized that if I was going to make reading the most important thing, I needed to step up my game.
Step one: Be a visible part of the community of readers.
I had to make time for reading; I had to show it was a priority.
So…I read with them during silent reading, I kept a list of finished books on the whiteboard, and I talked about my books – my favourite sentences, what was surprising me, what it made me think about.
Step two: Find a meaningful way to document their reading.
I decided to extend Penny Kittle’s reading ladder idea by moving it from their writer’s notebook to the walls of my classroom. Students fill in a Google form where they add information about the book, a rating from 1-10 (combination of personal connection, difficulty, emotional impact), and a reason for their rating. The book cover is then printed off and they get to stick it on the wall. (The process of printing out the covers does take a bit of time – but worth it)
In the beginning, when a student places their book on the wall, they confer with me about it. Through the conversation, I am able to learn what sort of reader they are. If a student is an avid reader, then after a few conversations with me, they bring a friend to the wall to discuss their book/rating.
Not all students are motived by the beauty of reading wall – but all students know that I am paying attention to their reading life. If they aren’t putting a book up on the wall, we talk about it and we find them a book they want to read. They do not get to fly under the radar.
Step three: Find a way to amplify their reading.
All of my students have a Goodreads account. This is an easy way for them to track their reading and it also aids in genre diversity. It also allows for opportunities to write a review for the books they read – to amplify their learning.
We do mini-lessons at the beginning of the year that focuses on review writing. Through the emulation of mentor texts, students are able to develop the ability to write meaningful, concise reviews of their books. When students know that their writing can be viewed publically, they are more careful and purposeful.
Step four: Take advantage of opportunities to connect to a students writing life.
I never assess anything associated with their independent reading books as this goes against the research of how to instill a love of reading. Nor are they reduced to only 15 min. at the start of class. It is important that students see how their reading and writing life connects – that by building new habits of reading, their writing naturally improves, too.
Sentence studies and using them as mentor texts during narrative writing are two such ways. (Here is a previous Moving Writers post discussing sentence studies)
Step five: Get parents involved.
Back to school night is one opportunity to invite parents to make their reading life visible, as well as parent/student/teacher conference time in November. I also email a letter to all parents at the start of the year that discusses the independent reading program [adapted from Penny Kittle’s example]. I know I am not going to suddenly have every family gathering in the living room for communal reading time – but I can dream. Even if parents just start asking about the books their child is reading in class, that is a good start.
Parents are getting visibly anxious as the teacher continues to discuss the importance of reading. They are there to learn about the AP course and they wonder if the teacher knows what she is doing. With a couple minutes left, the questions begin.
What do they actually do in the course though?
What does the exam look like?
What type of writing do they do?
This could easily be a “teach to the exam” type of course, but it’s not. Students in this class learn how to create new habits of reading and writing and thinking. And they learn this first through the establishment of a dedication to reading – to see how others write and think. This course can provide them with an opportunity to become informed citizens, to think critically, and to learn how to have an opinion of their own.
And guess what… it just so happens that all of those skills will also help them to be successful on the end of year exam. I will worry about the exam – I need you to worry about the reading.
It feels good having this ‘mic drop’ moment. Because without it, my 10 minutes would fall a little flat.
I focus on building a reading life because it is the base of everything. It is also something that can be done as a team effort between myself and parents – we can all show what is important.
The simplicity and power of picking up a book and spending time with beautiful words cannot be overstated.
How do you encourage a reading life? How do you amplify reading? How do you encourage parents to partner with you in creating a reading life? Connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore