Pay it Forward: Building an Appetite for Reading through Student Self-Awareness by Mandy Webb

My classroom resides in an alternative high school for students who for a number of reasons are behind on high school credit. While these students come from many different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, one thing they have in common is that somewhere along their educational skip down the sidewalk, they mistakenly fell between the cracks. Another educational trait the students share is their distaste for reading. When presented with any type of text most embody a sort of Green Eggs and Ham persona. When I first started teaching at the school, my initial reaction was shock, and then I found myself coaxing them with options likely as humorous as “Would you like them on a boat? With a goat? In a house? With a mouse?” with reluctant, if not flat-out rebellious results.  My inner Nerdy Book Clubber knew that for many of them, their appetite for reading simply needed a first taste, but didn’t know how to get them to take their first bite.

As with many other teenage issues, distaste for reading is deeply rooted in lack of self-awareness. To assist students in becoming self-aware readers, I have found that carefully constructed reading logs are invaluable. The significant difference between these reading logs and those condemned as busy work that are generally given to students is that they pay respect to text and the reader, not just the text. I require students in my intervention reading class to finish one book per term (a daunting task for many of them who have never finished a book). To this end, each Monday is dedicated to reading and reflecting. Their reading logs require students to set a purpose for their reading. At the beginning of each term we discuss that the purpose for our reading can be about the book they are reading or about their reading process for the day. Purposes include reading a certain number of pages, asking a question to answer, making predictions, staying focused, eliminating distractions, etc. After reading, the logs require students to reflect by writing responses that includes whether or not they fulfilled their purpose, the overall reading process, and what needs to take place the next time they read in order to be equally or more successful. This reflection is where students begin to form reader self-awareness, because they are required to articulate the thoughts they had while they read and are empowered to identify what they are understanding, what they are not and why.

One outstanding reflection comes from a student named Angela who wrote, “I was able to remain focused on my reading today because everyone else in the class was quiet and in the book the mom was abusing her son and I kept asking myself ‘how could a mother do that to her son?’ so I kept on reading to try and figure it out.” From this response, we can see Angela respecting herself as a reader by recognizing that her reading process requires a quiet environment and engagement in the text through asking questions. Angela is also respecting the text by demonstrating comprehension of events taking place. For students who lack self-awareness, I have found that students need some sentence starters to assist their thinking, some of which are listed below.

As a summative evaluation, the students write book reports that demonstrate comprehension of the text and in-depth reflection of their personal reading process and growth. Reports are where students; increased appetites for reading become evident, making statements like “I used to think I hated reading, but now I know how to get into a book and I actually like reading.” For a teacher this is as exciting as hearing “I do like them on a boat!  With a goat! In a house! With a mouse!” Appetites so voracious that I often struggle to keep up!

As a facilitator of Reading Apprenticeship professional development sessions (where I must give credit to for teaching me many of the lessons I am now paying forward) and weekly PLC meetings, I hear from many teachers that they want their students to know how to know, not just what to know, and I whole-heartedly echo their sentiment.  Reading logs and book reports that respect text and reader is one means of teaching students how to know text and themselves. Now, If someone would have told me as a teacher right out of college with binders full of innovative reading ideas that five years later two major assignments I would be giving my high school students were reading logs and book reports, I would have laughed, then cried, then dreaded the future thinking I was destined to become an antiquated English-teaching curmudgeon. Thankfully this is not the case (yet).

mandy webb

Mandy Webb is a high school English teacher and a national Reading Apprenticeship Consultant from Salt Lake City, Utah. You can follow her literary and pictorial musings/often-futile attempts at brevity on Twitter and Instagram @missmandyslc.