Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Let It Go

"SSR?  Yay!"

"Do we get to read today?"

"Oh, boy -- it's Library Day!"

"Mrs. McHale, have you ever read . . . "
    Much to my delight, I routinely hear comments like these in my Language Arts classroom.   I would love to claim that it’s all my doing -- but it’s not.  It's because books are wonderful. They can be teachers and friends.  They can transport you back to a time when life was very different or hurtle you forward to amazing worlds that don't exist -- yet.   You get my point: Reading is fun! Why have so many schools forgotten that?

After obtaining my Master Reading Teacher certification, I spent the next five years as a Reading Specialist in inner-city schools, dragging reluctant students through worksheets, and trying to ingrain the "discipline of reading" they'd need to pass the standardized reading test.  It was grueling work -- and guess what?  I was good at it.  The students' scores rose dramatically, and my principal was thrilled.

     The problem was that I was miserable.  My students hated me, and they hated to read.  Why wouldn't they?  They had no say in what they read.  If we weren't working with short, "skills-based" passages, we were reading from the State-adopted text, a collection of literature -- well above their reading levels -- that a panel of well-intentioned experts decided they "ought" to be reading. 

     Reading just wasn't fun anymore.  Reading was the dark, stifling cave we mined in our quest for Standardized Gold.  Clearly, it was time for a change.

     I landed a position in Leander ISD, a suburban district with a reputation for excellence.  While I still would work with struggling readers, my administrators weren't yet hard-wired for Standardized Testing Crisis Mode.  Preparing for "The Test" was not the sole purpose for my job's existence.  In this new environment, I started to learn more about "authentic reading," "self-selected reading," and "SSR," or Silent Sustained Reading. Tentatively, I shepherded my students into unfamiliar territory where I began
 to catch glimpses of a reading class very different from the ones I'd been teaching.

Four years later, I was assigned to a newly-created position designed to support the reading and writing skills taught in sixth-grade Language Arts.  A lack of adopted textbooks + the loosely-structured curriculum = my opportunity to take a chance on students learning with an emphasis on the silent sustained reading of self-selected text.

  Halfway through that first year, I surveyed my students, asking how they'd found the books they most enjoyed.  One comment really struck me.  An athletic little boy -- a "jock" -- simply stated this:  "I listened to the buzz in the classroom."

   A buzz?  My classroom buzzed about books?  That response, above all others, persuaded me I was on to something. Encouraged by the success of that year -- (Yes, standardized test scores improved.) -- I decided not only to teach students how to choose their own books, but also to reduce the amount of teacher-selected text and increase the time for Silent Sustained Reading followed by written or spoken response. I began to design more instruction with passages from my self-selected YA books, many of which were student-suggested. We began to examine the students' own sentences as we studied the conventions of English.

 Suddenly, the anxious guesswork of choosing enjoyable reading materials was no longer my responsibility.  When their choices were successful, the students began to believe in their ability to unearth written treasure.  They no longer had to feel guilty or apologetic for hating the stories I loved.   When a student reported he'd chosen a snoozer, I no longer expressed disappointment.  Instead, I stressed my belief that finding the right book was just a matter of time:

     "That's okay.  Nobody likes every book he reads.  I know I don't."

     "Maybe you should choose your next book differently.  How did you find that one?"  

     Together, we'd browse the library collection, discussing the student's interests.  I'd point out books other kids had loved.  Kids like him.  Occasionally, I'd mention a book trailer we'd watched in class or point out the sign of a well-loved book:  multiple copies of a high-demand novel lined up along a shelf.  (Think The Hunger Games.)  No matter what, though, his hands carried the final choices over to the check-out desk.

Eventually, I surveyed my students on their reading preference:  teacher-selected or student-selected text.  The results were so overwhelmingly in favor of student-selected materials that I almost felt stupid for asking the question.  (Actually, I did feel stupid.  How much more obvious could it be?)  Except for the necessary model texts and Mrs. McHale's Sure-fire, Always-works, Never-fails Greek Mythology Unit saved for the end of each school year, I knew what I had to do with teacher-selected text.

   Near the end of that year, my desk was piled so high with student-recommended books, I knew I couldn't finish them all before summer vacation arrived.  I also knew I would never go back to the test-driven methods for teaching reading and writing. 

My goal now is to persuade you to do the same and show you ideas for how it can be done.  I do not claim to have ironed out all the details.  After three years, I still have questions I'm working to answer. The one part I really "get," though, is why I teach this way: Books are wonderful, and that's what I want my students to learn.  

Teacher Tip

Can you get started this late in the year? Yes!  

Ask your school librarian to print out a list of this year's 20 most frequently borrowed books and create a poster to save for next year's students. According to student surveys, peer recommendations are the number one source for great book suggestions!

 example of  a Top Twenty poster

Also, if you haven't yet read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, order your copy today. It's 227 pages of pure inspiration.

Next up: So Many Books, So Little Time