Towards a Better Independent Reading Program by Christine McCartney
It had honestly never occurred to me.
“You mean they actually stare blankly at a page in a book and periodically flip the page to stare at another? They would do that. . .even with a self-selected text? They actually prefer that to reading?. . .”
The questions kept coming (and still do) when I think back to that sunny June afternoon when my co-teacher, Evelyn Pine, dropped those two words on me: faking reading.
It was the first year of our Independent Reading Program and I was just about ready to congratulate us on a job well done. How had this escaped me? We immediately took the blame upon ourselves. Were we not doing enough to hold the students accountable? Were we not modeling enough? What had we done wrong?
It wasn’t for lack of preparation. We had done all the background reading, but that wasn’t making us feel any better. Prominent reading educators, such as Galligher, Atwell and Miller were successfully cruising through an ocean of self-selected texts with students-turned-lifelong-readers cheering in their wake, while we were plodding along in our dinghy, barely afloat.
And not going under seemed hard enough. Already designated a School In Need Of Improvement by New York State, a very large portion of the students coming into Newburgh Free Academy in 2010 qualified for Academic Intervention Services in English Language Arts. Couple that with the fact that Newburgh has a high poverty level, an increased juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, high truancy and dropout rates, and an extremely low tax base to support its schools and you can see why my colleague and I were so determined to pull as many students into our lifeboat as possible.
So there we were: weighted with district reform plans aiming to increase the overall literacy of our students, rowing against a tide moving away from fictional literature towards informational texts, and now adding the realization that some of our students internalized a view of themselves as non-readers so much so that they would rather fake their way through an entire book than actually engage with it. How could we convince a student that a particular piece of literature was worth their time? We had a lot of thinking to do over the summer.
Fast forward two years. Our Independent Reading Program is still in full swing and has grown by leaps and bounds; I wouldn’t say that we are at our destination yet, but we are definitely moving forward at a respectable pace -and I can confidently say that the expression “barely afloat” no longer applies. The reflection we did over that summer had a great deal to do with it. We knew, for the most part, that once a student was hooked on a book, they would look forward to reading it; we had seen this first-hand on many occasions. But what we hadn’t taken into account had to do with convincing students that specific books were worth their investment. That summer, we realized something simple that had escaped us in the first two years: when it came to book selection, students valued the opinions of their peers more than they valued our opinions.
Since then, we have put several practices into place to help students encourage one another to dive into a particular book in the first place. These simple practices, coupled with structured student-teacher conferences to help gauge students’ understanding of their books, have made a huge difference:
1. Speed Book Dating:
This one is probably not new to most teachers, but it works wonderfully. You can find many different approaches online and then tweak them to fit your particular students. The premise is simple. Students each have a book that they have read (or are in the process of reading) and preferably enjoyed. We usually set up our desks in pairs and use a timer at the front of the room. We found that it is helpful if students have a worksheet to reflect on each book right after the “date.” This is also a great reference for them later in the year when it comes time for them to select another book. We set the timer for three minutes. One student then “sells” their book to the student they are paired with. They are encouraged to tell as much as they want about the book, but reminded not to give too much away. When the timer goes off, the other student takes their three-minute turn selling their book. After this, the students are given another two or three minutes to write. They are asked to jot down the title and author of the book their peer presented, write a brief description and then rate how interested they are to read it themselves. Then students get up and move to a new partner and the process begins again.
This practice is beneficial for many reasons, but two stand out. As a student repeatedly describes and speaks about their chosen book, they become more proficient at doing so. I have listened to students’ descriptions grow more and more sophisticated with each new pairing as the class progressed. Also, students generally enjoy sharing what they liked about a particular book, and their peers, in turn, become interested in the texts they recommend.
You can choose to ham it up as much as you want. Snacks, tablecloths, etc. might make it more exciting, depending on the group of students you have. An important part of the process is being sure that you make time for students to reflect at the end of class. We ask questions like, “What new understandings did you gain by sharing your book with your classmates?” and “What book do you think you would be most interested in reading next…and why?”
2. Book Talks
Book Talks are a simple, low-stakes strategy for students to earn a few extra points in our class, practice public speaking and exercise ownership over a book they read and enjoyed. We model these periodically when we get new books into our classroom library. They are relatively easy; at the beginning of a class designated for silent, sustained reading, a student can speak to his/her peers for a few minutes about a particular book. We usually conference with the student beforehand to review public speaking techniques and what they would like to communicate, and then the classroom is theirs. Students are typically encouraged to ask questions of the speaker afterwards and pass around the book for students to peruse. These can also be done digitally using programs such as Photostory 3, with photos and voice-overs and housed on a class website for future classes.
3. Use the internet
YouTube has a plethora of student-authored book trailers for students to watch. Encouraging students to write and read real book reviews on amazon.com not only helps them find and share books they might be interested in (especially thanks to the Customers who bought this item also bought section), but also helps them engage in a real world writing practice that can be a resource for them in the future. While students are spending some time looking at books and book trailers online, you can open up a back channel using websites like typewith.me or todaysmeet.com to allow students to post names and brief descriptions of books they might be interested in reading; by the end of the session, they will have a self-generated class list of possible books that you can then print out and distribute.
My favorite thing about teaching is that it is not static. If I were not challenged daily to grow my practice, I am not sure how long I would have lasted in this profession. Even though I still cringe when I remember the embarrassment I felt that day in June a few years back, it was because of the reflection and collaboration with my colleague (and all of the colleagues in my department, really) that we were pushed to rethink our approach to our Independent Reading Program –and the little dinghy, that once felt so crowded and tentative, is now sturdy and moving forward with more confidence and student engagement than ever.
Christine McCartney is a high school English Language Arts teacher at Newburgh Free Academy, in New York. She is currently residing in Tampere, Finland through a Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching researching how Finnish teachers incorporate research and reflection into their practice. Visit Christine at www.christinemccartney.net, and on Twitter @mrscmacc.