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Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

Recently, in a pretty typical high school hallway, I overheard two very different conversations about books.

Conversation One:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Oh my gosh, yes, I did, and I couldn’t believe the ending!!”
“I know! I cried so hard! I got makeup all over the pages!”
“Me too! But it was such a good ending, right?”
“Yeah. It had to end that way.”

Conversation Two:
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What happened? I think we have a quiz today.”
“Well, the main character ended up…”

The first conversation was one between real readers. The second was a conversation between students just trying to pass their English class. It’s obvious that the kids who are already readers are the kids in the first conversation, while the kids who are being besieged by negative reading experiences are the kids in the second.

The day I heard those conversations, someone tweeted Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students.”  She writes powerfully about how some story mediums gave her “large and instant rewards for spending time with them,” but that reading novels and completing “deadening take-home reading comprehension questions” assigned to her did not.  I recognized myself in this post, as I had much the same experience.  It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to read the classics, which I’d merely SparkNoted in high school.  This is me we’re talking about, who snatched the Twitter handle @litreader in 2008.  I, the kid who decided in 6th grade to read the entire public library, starting with author A and ending at Z, didn’t read what was assigned to me…simply because it had been assigned.

And then came Amy’s courageous and oh-so-right post yesterday about choice in AP and Honors level English classes.  I wish she’d written that post 12 years ago, when I was being beaten over the head with The Scarlet Letter.  Or 7 years ago, when I somehow, despite my own negative experiences, first began teaching and jumped into whole-class novels with gusto.  Thankfully, I met Amy a few years after I’d realized that that wasn’t the best way to get kids to love reading, and she’s helped me strengthen my teaching exponentially since then.  I’ve realized that it’s not the books that make kids love reading…it’s the experiences kids have with books, and it’s up to us to create conditions that foster the most positive of reading experiences.

When we value choice and focus our curriculum on authenticity and our students’ voices, we cultivate practices of lifelong reading. When we assign whole-class novels and base most of our coursework around them, we show students that we value books, not the act of reading itself.  Further, this practice values the teacher way too much–while in Penny Kittle’s words the teacher should be the best reader in the room, the teacher certainly shouldn’t be the only reader in the room.  Our students have excellent minds capable of making choices that will challenge their reading and thinking abilities.  We shouldn’t make all of those choices for them.

While you may believe that it is important for every student to be able to recognize a quote by Shakespeare at a cocktail party, you also hopefully believe in the value and power of reading. The only way to get our students to read for the rest of their lives–and become informed citizens and thinkers as a result–is to look into our classrooms and see our students as readers hungry for knowledge and wisdom, and not students who just need to know about certain books. The second doesn’t matter, at all. It’s not why we got into this profession, I hope–or at least it’s not why I got into this profession. If we want to create readers who will think and hope and dream and change the world, we have to teach those readers, not books.

A student-centered classroom that places choice and authenticity at its center is the answer.  The reading-writing workshop is a really effective format for that kind of classroom, and having it in place these last three or four years has made a world of difference in how my students and I view our time together.  Teaching has become much less a job for me, and much more a pleasurable way to pass my time.  I love talking to students about books, using my own expertise to help scaffold them up a reading ladder of text complexity.  I love reading their amazingly diverse writing and getting wonderful, authentic ideas for activities from them in writing conferences.  I love the sense of pride a kid shines with at the end of the year when he has defied an IEP and finished 18 books…but it breaks my heart when he fails senior English after a year of multiple-choice tests over Shakespeare.

And so, in the words of Natasha Vargas-Cooper, “To hell with Gatsby’s green light!”  Let them ponder it on their own time (they will; I promise you…I did).  Let’s teach readers…not books.

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24 thoughts on “Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

  1. […] I primarily do this by considering all things through the lens, first, of who I teach. […]

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  2. […] I’ve written about AP English and AP test scores in the past, and I imagine as long as I teach AP English Language and Composition, I will continue to do so. I really do not mean to be snarky, but the more I talk with kids about their reading lives, the more I keep hoping more and more teachers Aim Higher — not just in AP classes, but in all English classes. […]

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  3. […] too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what readers do when they […]

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  4. […] teach readers, not books.  We teach writers, not five-paragraph essays.  We teach wordsmiths, not grammar.  When we frame […]

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  5. […] Choice in all matters–in what to read, how to read it, and at what pace, as well as about what to write, how to write it, and at what pace […]

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  6. […] have written about choice here and here and here.  It crops up again and again in our writing, thinking, and […]

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  7. […] Rasmussen, an Advanced Placement English language teacher within the Lewisville, Texas, faculty district, stated the objectives Lemov and his co-authors say […]

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  8. […] Rasmussen, an Advanced Placement English language teacher in the Lewisville, Texas, school district, said the goals Lemov and his co-authors say can be […]

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  9. […] And just in case you’re STILL not convinced, Shana at Three Teachers Talk reminds us that our job is to teach readers, not books. […]

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  10. Gary Anderson February 10, 2015 at 8:23 pm Reply

    Being an English teacher today means having an awareness that teaching literature and teaching reading are different endeavors with different purposes and pedagogies. They are both noble endeavors, but they are different, with some areas of overlap. As you say, Shana, many students come to us as non-readers. That is my experience too. We can get them back on track with independent reading by providing opportunity, encouragement, and most importantly, choice.

    If we do the canonical literature-only approach, many students will simply not do it. Because teachers who refuse to change their decades-old lesson plans and approaches are highly predictable, a lot of students have figured out how to get decent grades without reading. (I was one of those students.)

    When students re-engage with reading through choosing their own books, they frequently find their ways to more challenging texts. My favorite example is the young man who spent the entire first semester reading manga, and the entire second semester reading virtually every John Steinbeck novel. He needed to re-learn how to enjoy books, and then he took off.

    Another example is a senior who stopped reading in fifth grade. During one semester, he read seven books of his own choosing, some more complex than others. (We spent ten minutes of each Brit Lit period reading self-selected books.) He is now a successful college student who checks in with me once a month or so to share what he has been reading and to see if I have any suggestions for him. He will be a lifelong reader, and choice is what brought him back.

    In some ways, this presentation of literature vs. reading is a false dichotomy, as Ramona suggests above. An English class can do both. There is plenty of space and time to do independent reading of self-selected books as well as whole-class novels.

    I admire your wisdom, Shana. Your torch burns brightly.

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    • shanakarnes February 12, 2015 at 5:42 am Reply

      Yes! I love your young man who went from manga to Steinbeck–I have a boy this year who read every Ellen Hopkins book and is now reading every award-winner about war–he just finished David Finkel’s Pulitzer winner The Good Soldiers.

      I try to do literature and reading in my class–not to mention tons of writing!!–but this post was just about the reading. Thanks so much for your wisdom. Mentors like you, Alan Frager, Penny Kittle, and more are the fuel that keeps my torch burning.

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  11. Erika B. February 10, 2015 at 3:08 pm Reply

    S – Thanks for sharing your personal experiences as a HS student and now, on the ‘other side of the desk’, as an educator. I have to whole-heartedly agree with your claims here. 🙂

    A student of mine, just last year, scored a perfect 6 on the ELA Regents Critical Lens Essay. This is a young man who submerged himself in choice reading and was so engulfed and engaged by his independent choices, that he found a new love – the obtainment of knowledge. Knowledge he was intrigued by, knowledge that he needed for his own life, knowledge that connected him to what he believed relevant.

    I bring this back to his writing because, without his own chosen investment, his writing would have not soared the way it did. He used literary elements in ways I have yet to see any other student (9 years in), he played with craft and structure the way published authors do, and most importantly, he found his voice while connecting his chosen literature to the words of a scholar (the quote needing analysis – task at hand).

    As for how this prepares this young man (among all others) for sitting in college classrooms…this overall perfect score on his writing moved his overall score just below a 90%. In NYC, a 75% or higher within the CUNY system makes students eligible to not need remedial courses. So, just like his peers (those who have IEPS like himself and those in General Education), he now has access to an education on the post-secondary level.

    And yes, this student studied with me for two hours a day in our literacy intervention course. If this magic occurs in literacy intervention courses…it can happen anywhere.

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    • shanakarnes February 12, 2015 at 5:35 am Reply

      Erika–perfect example of the success of RWW. It happens for all kids in some form if done well, yes? Thanks for sharing! 🙂 XOXO

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  12. Ramona Lowe February 10, 2015 at 10:46 am Reply

    It’s not an either/or decision. There should be room for both, but if I were forced to follow one and one only, it would be the independent reading pathway. I was in a shop this weekend and overheard an adult say, “I promised myself when I left high school I wouldn’t read again, and I don’t.” He was referring to reading books, not the reading we all do in a course of a day, but his HS experience had soured him on reading forever. We don’t win when our students leave our classes determined to never open another book. In every classroom, there must be structures to support the whole class (canon), small group (social) and independent (self choice) reading. It can be done.

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    • shanakarnes February 12, 2015 at 5:32 am Reply

      I completely agree, Ramona! I couldn’t have said it better–“In every classroom, there must be structures to support the whole class (canon), small group (social) and independent (self choice) reading.” I use book clubs for the small group reads and short stories, poems, and plays for the whole class texts. I see far too few teachers leaving any room for self choice reading…hence this post! Thanks for reading!

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  13. Gary Anderson February 10, 2015 at 8:22 am Reply

    And because authentic lifetime learning is the ostensible purpose of schooling, why would we do anything else? Great post, Shana.

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    • shanakarnes February 10, 2015 at 9:19 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Gary!! 🙂

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  14. Alan Frager February 10, 2015 at 8:12 am Reply

    I think your view of curriculum is off base. We don’t read Shakespeare to recognize quotes at a cocktail party. I strongly suggest you read Neil Postman’s Book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Postman’s first book on education championed a student choice curriculum, so he called it Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Years later he learned and realized that what student choice really means is choosing what the popular culture suggests. In other words, there is no “free choice” since we are social beings. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity Postman explains how and why schools need to be very distinct from the popular culture. It is in the contrast between the popular culture and the academic culture where people can find their authentic selves.

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    • shanakarnes February 10, 2015 at 9:29 am Reply

      I remember reading from Teaching as a Subversive Activity (maybe in your class??)–I need to add Conserving to my to-read list. And, I completely agree that we don’t read Shakespeare for that purpose–a teacher a friend spoke with, though, said that. 😦

      I am still trying to find a balance between authenticity in my classroom and the distinction between popular culture and school in my curriculum, I suppose. I think I view popular novels (John Green and the like) as gateways into the more complex texts I’m always urging my students toward. Either way, I think all reading is what helps us find our authentic selves, and I have so many students come to me as non-readers that I am trying to find the best way to help them transform into lifelong readers the best way I can.

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      • Alan February 10, 2015 at 9:45 am Reply

        Hi Shana, think about sometime where your authority to teach literature comes from. While your own free choice reading is important, accredited and respected universities don’t grant English or teaching degrees for self-selected reading. NCTE and other professional organizations gave input into curricula of required reading that universities use for degree programs. I think there is definitely a place for self selected reading in the school day, which would be SSR. But English class needs to be a place where students read challenging texts together. This can mean student groups instead of one whole class group but that is very difficult to pull off. Also, I think teachers make different curriculum choices in different career stages. It sounds like reading-writing workshop is ideal for this stage in your career. Alan

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    • shanakarnes February 12, 2015 at 5:39 am Reply

      I completely agree–my free choice reading didn’t get me my Miami degree. Instead, it gave me the foundation to understand complex texts that I read in order to get my degree. Last year I still taught three novels within the structure of the workshop–this year I am experimenting with only doing plays, short stories, and novellas as a whole class, and teaching the longer pieces in small groups–literature circles/book clubs. I am definitely still evolving and innovating as a teacher–I completely agree that RWW is perfect for me right now. It gives me a structure within which to confer daily with my students and gather a ton of data, try out highly individualized teaching of reading and writing strategies, and also add my own thematic units and curricular goals–while still having time to familiarize ourselves with Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Hughes, Dickinson, and the like. Thanks for your wisdom–I value the way you challenge my thinking!

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    • Kara February 13, 2015 at 4:32 am Reply

      My experience has definitely shown me that the choice is not between reading The Scarlet Letter and reading A Fault in Our Stars. Unfortunately, the choice is more often between reading the SparkNotes summary of The Scarlet Letter and reading AFIOS. I don’t think that university English programs should be mostly free-reading programs; along the same vein, however, I don’t think high school English programs are setting out to create English majors. In my middle and high school English classes, I’m working to create readers. The goals are not the same.

      And how powerful is it when students choose to read classics! This year I’ve have students reading Murder on the Orient Express, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Maus, The Moon is Down, Slaughterhouse Five, The Things We Carried, and more. Do they understand them thoroughly? No, but neither did I understand Gatsby the first time I read it, which, by the way, I hated so much in school that I’ve not been able to read it again despite many STUDENTS who tell me that it’s one of their favorite books. I’ve also been focusing on genre more this year and have graphs on the wall that are color-coded by genre. They’ve become a conversation point as you can see quantity and variety at a glance.

      What I love about reading-choice programs is that I feel like I know and respect my students’ intellectual lives more. When I taught the way I was taught, I didn’t even really think much about students’ reading patterns outside of my classroom. All I was attuned to was whether they knew what had happened in the assigned reading. I like seeing them as people rather than vessels.

      Great post, Shana!

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      • Alan February 13, 2015 at 9:09 pm Reply

        Kara, think about this: math teachers use a curriculum that helps some kids become math majors. Science teachers teach in a way that helps some kids become science majors. History teachers, similarly. Colleges depend on high schools teaching kids what they need to know to major in different content areas. I think we need to prepare a good portion of high school kids to become English majors. Trust me, I’m in favor of reading instruction as much as anyone who has ever lived. I just think that English teachers have to do more than teach kids to read books that the kids choose. That won’t prepare very many for college and college success is a very attainable and worthy goal for all kids. In the best school districts, 90 percent of kids go to college.

        Also, while it is true that way too many kids read sparknotes, I think teachers need to take ownership of that problem. As you wrote, you and many teachers viewed kids as vessels. This is the perspective that leads kids to sparknotes. Unfortunately, you and many teachers never had guidance or instruction in how to teach literature in a way that engages kids as interpretive and critical thinkers.

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        • Kara February 14, 2015 at 9:43 am Reply

          Alan, I don’t agree that what happens in a workshop class doesn’t prepare students to become English majors if they so choose mostly because I don’t think it’s the content that students learn in high school that prepare them to major in that discipline but rather the skills and habits of mind. I was a Russian major (I have a graduate degree in English) and was not expected to have content preparation when I entered college. I would argue that many, perhaps most, departments do not assume potential majors will enter with background knowledge in their content areas. What they do need of majors is interest and the ability to read, write, and think very well.

          Earlier this year, my husband looked at the piles of books by my side of the bed and asked me whether there was any book that all kids need to read. When I eventually got back to him, I had decided that the answer was no. Now I think that answer is over-simplified. Do I think that an educated high school graduate should have a certain level of cultural awareness? Yes. Do I think that entails a concrete list of books? No. Do I believe the research that shows a long-term decline in reading abilities? Yes. Do I think the solution to these questions lies in one English course? No. Right now, we face the very real situation that many students do not read enough to be able to read the quantity and complexity of texts they will face in college, and English teachers are called on to address that problem. One solution is clearly represented on this blog.

          When we were discussing this conversation over breakfast this morning, my husband—who’s a science teacher—proposed that we need a progressive curriculum that doesn’t insist these problems can be addressed in one class. What if all high school students took a reader’s-writer’s workshop course each year in which the focus is on developing reading and writing skills and habits of mind? What if all high school students also took courses focused on Hirschian essential knowledge? Call it Great Books, embed it in history course, there are lots of possibilities. I think if we could open ourselves up to defining the root problems and also letting go of the notion of where and how those problems should be solved then we can actually work on realistic solutions.

          I’m in Vermont and last year our legislature passed a law mandating personal learning plans for all students starting next year. This legislation is forcing our district, which has not had standards-based assessment up until now, to rework the curriculum. This conversation is definitely going to inform what I bring to the table. Thanks!

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