Friday, May 16, 2014

It's Never Too Late to Build Students' Reading Stamina

     This will come as a shock in some circles, but bean bag chairs are completely optional for The Sustained Reader's classroom.  In fact, certain bean bags might cause quite a disruption.  Can you imagine the running, screaming, crying fights over this one?  And that would just be me!

     Scented candles (before they were banned), strings of Christmas lights (ditto), classical music (until my students made me quit) -- all are nice, but unnecessary for an environment conducive to Sustained Silent Reading.

      The essential element of a space for sustained reading is the teacher's immutable expectation that all students can (and will) read silently for an extended period of time.  That's it -- and it's absolutely free!  But you have to set the stage.  First, you must ensure that everyone understands the purpose of SSR.  Yes, you'll have The Bookishly Blessed whose only concern is their 30-minutes of bliss in Narnia or District 13.  But you've also got students like Chris who once told me, "I just figured the teachers need extra time to grade papers."  (Hmm . . .  I wonder where he got that idea.)

     Typically, I begin by asking who knows the meaning of the word "stamina."  Some kid -- usually an athlete -- will ultimately venture "Something you can do for a really long time?"  Yes!  Then we discuss why it might be important to read for a long, uninterrupted stretch.  Unfortunately, this is the point where The Standardized Test must be mentioned, but it is a cruel fact of the world in which they live.  Kind of like tetanus shots or kale.

     "So is anyone in here a runner?"

     Hands go up.

     "Do you run a mile the very first day?  Bryce -- is that what you did?"

     Bryce, rolling her eyes at the very thought:  "No."

    "So what did you do?"

    The discussion eventually grows to include all which a middle-school student holds dear -- dancing, learning a musical instrument, video gaming, competing in every conceivable sport on the planet -- and it always leads to this basic truth:  

Everything we want to do well requires practice, and not just a little.  

(Too bad the ol' 10,000 Hours Rule didn't pan out.  That concept really played well to a sixth-grade audience.)

    Starting with a seven-minute dip in the pool of Sustained Silent Reading, the expectation grows: seven minutes, 12 minutes, 20 minutes, 30.  One day, the timer goes off, and students snap back, blinking in the glare of reality.

     "What?  We read for 30 minutes?"

     It happens every year.

  This year, though, I beheld a sight for the first time in my 23 years of teaching.  At the end of the four-hour standardized testing marathon, STaar-struck students turned in their tests, pulled out their books, and proceeded to read as if it were any other day.  And it was.  It was any other day in the real world, where reading is fun.  It takes us places we never knew we'd go.

Next up:  The Unnatural Appeal of Supernatural Romance