Tag Archives: teaching readers

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

In an AP English Class, Shouldn’t It Be about the Reading?

This is my fifth year to teach AP English Language and Composition. Every year I can pretty much predict during the first grading period which students will pass the AP exam with a qualifying score. See, my campus practices true open enrollment: any student that wants to challenge herself with PreAP or AP classes may. We have no prerequisites. Any student that demonstrates a strong work ethic, attends tutorials, and tries hard can pass my class, but she may not pass the AP exam in the spring– if she is not already a reader.

Photo by Seasonal Wanderer

It’s a lack of reading skills that gets students every time. The multiple choice portion of the test is a killer with four to five passages and usually 55 questions, which must be answered in 1 hour. I can teach test-taking skills that will help my students do better on this part of the exam, but if a teen is not already a reader when he comes to me, I can rarely help him learn the vocabulary and critical reading skills needed to score at least 50% of the questions correctly (the minimum goal for the mc portion of the test). I’m a pretty good teacher, but the AP exam is difficult, and my magic wand only has so much power.

Many of my students do not come from homes with reading role models. Their parents are hard working immigrants who do not have funds to invest in books. Quite simply, most do not identify themselves as readers. Of course, there’s the few. The students who had an older sibling or a teacher or a librarian (or sometimes a parent) push books into eager hands. These are the students I predict will find success on the AP test come May.

For four years I’ve tried to figure this out:  If it’s the readers who can pass the exam, how can I get more students to be readers? It should be simple.

I tried the classic route. It simple didn’t work. I used to assigned six novels, all the best-loved American literature; and just this summer in a brief Facebook exchange, a former student confirmed what I already knew. She said, “I loved the class, but I didn’t read one book.”

She was not the only one, and my feeble attempts year after year to get students to read, and their feeble attempts year after year to pass my assessments, proved that the classic route was not taking my students on the road they needed to go. They still weren’t readers.

I assert that most high school students do not read the assigned texts, especially classic novels that they can read about online–learning just enough to join a class discussion, write an essay, or pass a test. They might learn the gist of the novel, maybe even get the jokes alluded to in pop culture, but they are not reading.

And that is what I want:  I want to foster readers.

Yesterday I sent out a tweet:

I’m spending grant $. Please, what are the hottest reads in your HS English class library? Thanks for sharing titles. #engchat

Many people responded with several titles i didn’t know, and my shopping list got longer. But I also got this response:

XXXXXXXXXXXX 21 Oct (I deleted the name to protect the not so innocent.)

@AmyRass My Juniors are reading: Huck Finn, Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, The Road, Gatsby, Things They Carried, Other Wes Moore, Catcher

I responded with this:

@xxxxxx Thanks for sharing. Great books. Are they reading those titles as free choice? If so—impressive.

And the answer was this:

@AmyRass They are chosen from a list we gave them. I also am fortunate to teach some very bright students.

Hmmm. I wish I could poll those students. I’d bet my farm, if I had one, that very few are actually reading those books. To roughly quote Don Graves: “Choice without [a kind selection] is no choice at all.”

I do things differently. I’ve abandoned the whole class novel like I allow my students to abandon books, (although I know there are some cases when reading the same text can lead to useful instruction. Don’t hate.) My students read during the first 10 minutes of every class. I talk about books as often as I can. I add new books to my shelves that I know students will read. (I bought three copies of Allegiant this afternoon because I know Ashley, Kathryn, Sierra, Adrian, and Diego are waiting. There will be a clamor in the morning.)

Is it hard to devote 10 minutes of a 50 minute class period to reading? Yeah, at first–when the traditionalists tried to drag me back to the dark side. Then I had my students blog about their reading lives over the last seven weeks. So many of them wrote about how they’ve read more books in seven weeks than they read the whole of their sophomore year. Three, four, five books. Already.

I am glad they are reading YA literature. I know it doesn’t have higher-level vocabulary. I know that it doesn’t have sophisticated syntax. I also know that my students like it; they are reading after all.

This quarter I will push students into harder texts. Just yesterday, I put a stack of memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, and classics on every table, and I talked books. I challenged students to add to their What To Read Next list, and I gave descriptions of characters and hints at plots. I’d like students to read a sampling of different genres–try a graphic novel or a NY Times Bestseller–because so many teens don’t know what they like–yet.  If they don’t meet the challenge? It’ll be okay, as long as students keep reading.

Today Yulissa asked for Cut. Luis asked for Unwholly. Esmeralda read A Child Called ‘It’ in 24 hours and went straight to A Man Called Dave when she walked in the door. Anthony started reading The Lord of the Flies, and Stephany asked for an award winner, so I gave her a stack of six to sort through–all had Printz or National Award or Pulitzer emblems. Tomorrow will be similar. We’re nine weeks into the year, and reading’s become routine.

I may not be able to give all my students the skills they need to master the AP Lang exam, but I am giving them the time they need to plant the seeds of those skills. They’ll sprout and take root and begin to grow, and maybe, just maybe, my students will have the stamina they need to succeed in college, and, maybe that stamina will help them succeed in life.

That’s more important than an AP exam anyway.

I’d love to know the reading habits of the AP English students on your campus. Are they (fake) reading? or really reading?

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