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Teaching Reading, Falling in Love, and Other Mysteries

My Inner City School on the Prairie

Something bad happened to me. I fell in love. Of course, falling in love wasn’t the bad part. The bad thing that happened to me was falling in love with someone from a rural area. I was still in college, and he was older and deeply involved with his career. Then I graduated. We got married. He remains committed to his career. I had to find a way to make a living in this rural place.

In desperation, I took a job at a low-income school. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I graduated college with a teaching degree. I am certified to teach English and Theatre to hormone-crazed teenagers. Yes, I thought this would be an exciting field; No, I am not (completely) insane. But, I digress. Back to the story ...

Where were we? Oh, yes ... I take a job at a low-income school. I find out that I wasn’t as poor as I thought I was in college. My students are much poorer. I am informed that I will be teaching Reading. The first week of school, I hand out a reading survey and discover my students have between zero and ten books in their homes. I am surprised to learn that some people would rather eat hairy road kill than read. I am disappointed. I draw on my well of optimism (don’t ask me where it comes from) and I decide that I, as first year teacher, am going to find a way to “reach these kids” (as Southpark’s Cartman says. And no, I do not watch Southpark, my lovely husband, however, does).

I decide to do something radical. I implement that crazy program I read about in college- “Reading Workshop.” In one of my teaching classes we read a book by Nancie Atwell called “In the Middle.” I was star struck as I read it. I thought, “If only real school could be like this!” The method is crazy because STUDENTS get to choose their OWN BOOKS! The teacher encourages them and makes suggestions, but the students decide what to read. Crazy. There are no study guides or chapter tests. Crazier. The students read to learn the pleasure of reading, and by doing so they become better readers. Crazy!

Want to know what is even crazier? It is working.

Listen to Nancie
Nancie Atwell describes what student choice is. See and hear Nancie’s response to the NY Times article on the place of student choice in reading. (Link includes NY Times article and Atwell video.)

Working out the Workshop

Of course my students did not just pick anything they wanted to read and magically start scoring higher on assessments because they love reading so much. They are only allowed to read novels. Some of them are still not in love with reading (I am working on them!). No, Reading Workshop is much more involved than letting students pick their own reading material.

First, I had to recognize that most of my students HATED reading. This meant that I had to get powerful, exciting, and meaningful books into their hands, fast. My school didn’t have the best selection of books, so we completed and received a grant. I was asked to spend it (being paid to shop? Yes, please!) on new books for our library.

Second, I had to become serious. Like, “You will read or else ...” Being tough kids, they thought this was funny until I began devoting forty-five minutes a day, for a straight week, to nothing but silent reading. They got so bored, and tired of my encouragement, that they started reading. Once they started reading, they got involved in the story and didn’t mind continuing.

Third, every day at the beginning and the end of reading time, I have the students tell me what page number they are on. This creates a system of accountability. It also became a friendly competition to be the person that read the most.

Fourth, I let them exchange books they don’t like for new ones (after they read at least two chapters). I found out long ago what reading level my students are at and what they are interested in, and I put those books in their hands. Once they find that “first great book” (stealing from Atwell here), they crave that connection to a story again.

And fifth, after a time I required reading homework. Students have homework twice a week, a minimum of fifteen pages a night. Now, because of family emergencies, absences, or sports, I am flexible, and as long as they read thirty pages a week, they earn thirty homework points.

At this point I will remind you that my students are from impoverished, uninvolved families. Asking them to read at home is equivalent to asking them to bring me the moon twice a week. But, I waited until they were involved in their books. I waited until I knew that they had books they would return. I waited until my students were confident in themselves as readers.

How did they begin to see themselves as readers?

We read at school every day, for a minimum of twenty minutes. I teach mini lessons (ten to fifteen minutes) on the core skills researchers say that good readers should have and use. Our mini lessons cover things such as drawing conclusions, genres, what themes are and how to find them, making inferences, characters, and the list goes on and on and on ... So far all of my students have raised their reading scores, some by as much as a year and half worth of improvement.

Embracing the Mystery
I am the kind of person that believes the cosmos have some larger plan for people. I don’t know why I fell in love with a guy from a rural area and could only find a job where the average eighth grader read at a fourth grade level. (I wanted to teach high school students drama!) But, I am here; I am still in love, and I am being paid to teach. Maybe I will just embrace the mystery.