Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teaching Reading: A Reflection and a Way Forward

Starting my semester as a student teacher, I was asked to cover two district required books with the students: The Pearl by John Steinbeck and Night by Elie Wiesel1. I tried to use what I had learned at university - methods that were supposed to be on the cutting edge: book clubs, sticky notes, bookmark prompts, double-entry journals. It could have been beautiful, but it was a failure. Because the most critical element in life-long reading was missing.


You can't mix mandated reading with methods that encourage life-long reading. It doesn't work. No one outside of school has a required reading list written by someone else. That's ridiculous. Readers read what they want to.

District required reading is schooly.

Ever since reading Daniel Penac's Better than Life, I've been struggling with the question "How do I hang the Reader's Bill of Rights in my classroom and still teach reading?"

And now I know the answer: Teach reading; don't teach themes in specific books to the whole class when only half the class is interested in reading the text.
  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.
My answer, I think, addresses rights two through ten. The critical prerequisite for number one (from the teacher's point of view) is that students have a text that interests them. My job is to help them find it. If they still choose not to read during class after we've found a book that they will read at some point, then I've fulfilled my duty, I think. They still have to do something productive during that time and not disrupt others' reading (their right to read anywhere). A student may still choose not to read though, and I'm not sure what to do with that yet. The argument "you can choose not to read, but you'd be choosing to receive a poor grade" is lame, in my opinion.

Models of Unschooly Reading Instruction

Following are the various models I've come up with for properly teaching reading as I see them. Each model is rated on a scale of 1-10 (1 is low, 10 is high) on Constitutionality (ability to adhere to the Reader's Bill of Rights), Potential Learning (ability for the method to meet standards or teach specific themes/genres to the entire class), and Unschooliness (how real world the learning is).

A. Students read what they want individually

Students choose any book, periodical, collection of short stories, or other text. Student provides evidence of their learning by writing a summary, book report, or creates another form of evidence. Students share what they're reading with others. Struggling readers are given support with their trouble area and offered texts that match their reading level.

Students can exercise all of their rights, but must read at least one text in full, or in their book report explain why they chose not to finish or chose to skip pages in a certain section.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 5
Unschooliness: 8, depending on available forms of evidence students can submit

B. Students choose from a wide range of books on a broad topic and read individually

The teacher identifies a broad theme (like historical fiction, diversity, socio-economic status) and finds a significant number of books and genres (novels, short stories, graphic novels) students can choose from. Fifty might be enough. Students can submit books to be considered. (Though they would have to read them and understand the theme to know if they could be considered, in which case maybe they won't learn anything new in that unit but instead should focus on something else. But they have a right to reread, and their presence in discussion might be beneficial to other students, so perhaps they read the same book, but explore an additional element or go deeper.) Struggling readers are given support with their trouble areas and texts that match their reading level. This option requires a lot of work from the teacher, however.

Constitutionality: 7
Potential Learning: 8
Unschooliness: 7

C. Book Clubs or Literature Circles

Students are introduced to six or eight books on a narrower theme (like color, poverty, coming of age). Students submit their first, second, and third choice of book. All students are guaranteed to get one of their top three choices. Throughout the unit, students participate in book clubs where they clarify the plot line and discuss character motivations, themes, and personal opinions. Or, in literature circles, students take part in two groups: one that discusses the specific book and another small group that discusses major themes and connections between texts with one student from each book club group in the second small group - like a jigsaw group.

Constitutionality: 4
Potential Learning: 9
Unschooliness: 6 (even though book clubs are more common place outside of school, the narrow range of book choices is a more schooly thing)

D. Real World Reading

I'm coining the term, but have no idea if someone else has tried it. It's only an idea in my head right now, so who knows if it will work.

Students choose any text to read. They may choose to read it alone. They may choose to read a text with other students and form a book club. Some students may choose not to finish a book and leave the book club. Other students may finish their first book and decide to join a book club to start their second. Students may decide to investigate a particular theme and form literature circles (with members reading books individually or in book club groups). Students (as individuals or in groups) may ask the teacher to guide them to a group of books with a specific theme or of a certain genre. They may choose to read with a partner. They may choose not to read during classroom reading time but work on something else, like a writing piece.

Students complete a reading portfolio with evidence of their reading throughout the semester or year. This may include group projects from book clubs or individual work. Students know and understand the state standards, and each possible form of evidence students have the option of producing is matched with the standards it addresses. Students may propose additional forms of evidence. Portfolios must meet all the state standards.

The amount of teacher work involved is enormous. The payoff would be too.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 10
Unschooliness: 10

I think these models could be set in a progression - A & B during first term, C during second, and D during the last semester.

How do I deal with the required reading? Like the teacher down the hall did when I was student teaching: give them three days in class to read it on their own and don't formally assess it. Or maybe I'll read it aloud. Maybe. But I still won't assess it.

I'm sure I'm missing some methods for teaching reading - please leave me your criticisms of these models and the many other possibilities in the comments.
1. I think every teenager should read Night. Especially if they have no idea what the holocaust was, like my students. But I won't force it on them. I might do a webquest to get them interested though. Go back

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

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    Jason Pfeifer
    Community Manager