Aim Higher: It Isn’t About Passing a Test by Amy Rasmussen
I asked students to do a quick “whip” around the room and tell everyone what they were reading. I got the term from Penny Kittle, and it’s the best way I’ve found to get a fast Status of the Class.
I pointed to the back left table, and one student after another called out their book titles: Thirteen Reasons Why, Fat Angie, Divergent, Fall Out. All great YA titles. Some I had book talked; others I had not.
I pointed to the next table: The Glass Castle, Freakonomics, Othello, The Art of War. A little disbelieving, I asked, “You chose those books for independent reading?” and four heads nodded.
We kept going. Students called out The Life of Pi, Telegraph Avenue, Slaughterhouse Five, The Three Musketeers, Crime and Punishment, Plato’s Republic, in addition to some YA titles.
“Really?” I said. “Why?”
“I kept hearing about it, and I thought I’d give it a try.”
“It was on your ‘challenge’ shelf, so I thought I’d take a challenge.”
“You talked about this one, and it sounded interesting.”
“The cover is cool.”
“You know,” I said, “Many people do not believe that students will choose to read these types of books on their own. I just need a moment here.”
I am sure they thought I’d lost it. (I do so often.)
See, I didn’t always understand the power of independent reading. When I began teaching AP English, I taught the same books that my colleague did: The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Awakening, The Grapes of Wrath. There was no room in the schedule for independent reading. We had to teach complex literature and prepare students for the AP exam. Had to.
I didn’t know any better.
Then in 2009, I heard Donalyn Miller speak about allowing students time to read and the importance of reading conferences and letting students choose the books they want to read. I liked what she said, but I didn’t get how to make it work in an advanced class. So I asked her, and Donalyn’s response sparked something that sat smoldering inside me until I heard Penny Kittle share almost the exact same message about building life-long readers a few months later.
Donalyn said, “It’s not about the test, is it?”
At the time I thought: “Rude. You don’t know about Advanced Placement English. You teach middle school. Everyone who knows anything about AP will tell you it IS about the test.”
(Don’t worry. Donalyn knows where I am going with this.)
I am grateful for mentors. After hearing Penny share her approach to reading and how by allowing students to choose the books that interest them we can create life-long readers, I finally got what Donalyn meant, and the flame lit.
It isn’t about passing a test. It never should be. We should aim much higher than any ‘ole exam. Our aim should be to foster a love of reading, which in turn will move students to greater fluency, which in turn can lead into deeper critical thinking, which may be just the thing our society needs to calm the chaos — more critical thinkers. At least I’d like to think so.
And, hey, we all know that it’s the best readers who are also the best writers, so if the outcome of that exam is still an issue — students who are readers (with a little writing instruction from us) will most likely get qualifying scores anyway. Win/Win.
The first day of school I began talking about books to my AP Language and Composition students. “We are a community of readers,” I said. “Our goal is to read 200 pages a week. That is your standard homework assignment.”
Every day I pass the clipboard where students record their page numbers and at the end of the week add up their pages read. Is this a perfect system? No. Do some students fudge on numbers? Yes.
As often as I can (which is never often enough), I talk to students about the books they are reading. They tell me what they like and what they don’t. We have better relationships, more sharing, than I ever had with students before I started “giving up” ten minutes of my 50 minute class periods every day for independent reading. Many of my colleagues still don’t get it. “How can you give up that much time every week? There’s so much to do.”
Yes. Yes, there is, but I know that I can get more movement in student writing when I can get students reading. I know I can get more mileage in vocabulary and grammar instruction when I can get students reading. I can do more, even when I have less time for a lesson cycle.
Because here’s the thing: It’s not really “giving up.” It’s more a “choosing to.”
I choose to spend time building a classroom library that rivals the main one downstairs. I choose to read books myself so I can share them with students. I choose to talk about books, tweet about books, and link as much instruction to books as possible. I choose to read short texts as a class and teach students how to critically read on their own. And the proof of my efforts? My students are moving up their own ladders, choosing complex and rich literature, some of which I haven’t even talked about.
They have found these books on their own.
Isn’t that what real readers do? They listen to others. They browse the shelves. They choose titles based on what they want to read.
I no longer worry about AP exam scores because my experiences with students cannot be based upon a test. I’m not sure anything of real value can.
I’ll trade a conversation about Dostoevsky or Vonnegut every single time.
Amy Rasmussen has her own vertical alignment this year, teaching PreAP English I, PreAP English II, and AP English Lang at Turner High School in Carrollton, TX. She recently started consulting–sharing her success with readers/writers workshop at the secondary level and teaching others the benefits of it. She is the mother of seven children, three of which are serving missions in far away lands, and the grandmother of two tiny little readers, who will always know what Mamy is giving them for Christmas. She writes at www.ThreeTeachersTalk.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @amyrass.