An Open Letter to the Class by Brett Vogelsinger
November 2013: Three months into my first time teaching a new curriculum in a new grade. You’ve been there, so you know the moment when you’ve run the beginning-of-the-year energy well dry and suddenly winter break seems a long way off. Still, I knew that part of my own goal in switching grade levels from eighth to ninth was to drop a bomb on some of my practices that had become a little too routine, a little too predictable, and finally apply some of the ideas I loved to read about but had not yet brought to life in my classroom.
Part of this broad plan was to employ a reading workshop model and shift my focus from covering assigned texts to developing each student’s reading life. Thus, after a strong beginning to the year — creating our reading autobiographies, choosing books from the classroom library, participating in frequent silent reading times, reading one book together as a shared experience — it was time to set my ninth-grade students free for a bit.
I told them, “Choose your next book. Read a book with a friend. Read a book you’ve been eyeing for a while but haven’t had the time to read. Go for nonfiction or a graphic novel, or some guilty pleasure a teacher might never assign.” And then the questions began.
In every class, they came in almost identical order:
What will the project be at the end of this book?
How many points will the project be worth?
When will it be due?
Will this grade go in this marking period?
Practically, I had no file folders filled with past projects and exemplars. The curriculum was new to me, and though I had a clear picture of which aspects of it I would develop with lessons to accompany our free reading, I had no project ready in the wings. Philosophically, I wanted this to be a projectless assignment, to reward the reading instead of the “proof of comprehension” they were used to delivering.
So I told them to set a goal for the next four weeks. It could include more than one book, a certain number of pages, a regularity to their reading life that perhaps they had not yet developed. At the end of the four weeks, I would write them an open letter to the class. Each of them would write a reply. This made some students nervous and others relieved.
Here is the letter I gave my students at the end of four weeks:
An Open Letter to the Class
We recently completed a period defined by our personal reading goals. Part of my goal as your teacher is to help you develop a personal reading life that goes beyond the mandatory “this-page-to-that-page” reading requirements. To help me with this, I need some of your feedback. Tell me your thoughts on the recent reading goal period on the back of this page. Don’t feel you have to answer all the questions in your response to me, but just the ones that are most interesting and important to you.
Did you use strategies to meet your goal? Did your goal stretch you, or was it too easy? Did you exceed your goal? Did you almost fail to meet your goal and have to push to finish at the end? If you could rewrite your goal now, how would it be different?
There was no major project associated with this reading. Was that a good thing, or would you have liked some project at the end to show what you gained from your reading? Why do you feel projects help or hurt your personal reading?
Do you feel like you are growing as a reader this year? If so, how? If not, how do you think you need to grow as a reader? What are your next goals?
Did you change your book or feel like changing your book? If you stuck with the original choice, was that a good decision? Why or why not?
What were your thoughts on the reading level of the book? Was it comfortable, too easy, a good stretch, or way too difficult? How did this affect your reading experience?
How did this reading fit into other reading we’ve done for class this year, or class discussions you’ve enjoyed? How did you connect this reading to things inside and outside of English class?
Thank you for your time and your effort both in reading and in reflecting on your process.
True confession: I was a little uneasy with this assessment of their reading. While I knew that my overriding objective was to foster independence in developing a reading life, I wasn’t convinced that students would take my call for reflection seriously. After all, so many reflections that teachers request from students result in canned responses, packaged neatly to meet our expectations.
True confession number two: I was wrong to worry. The feedback and reflections I received from responses to my open letter not only gave me a window into how my students felt about their reading, but also resulted in level of candor that I’m not always accustomed to.
As I read through all of their responses, I couldn’t help but notice that while everyone picked and chose from the buffet of questions I provided in the letter, as I had invited them to do, almost everyone had something to say about reading paired with projects. And all of those “somethings” added up. I give you their thoughts in their own words:
“I really enjoyed how there was no project at the end of this. I feel like it showed me how reading doesn’t have to be stressful. How you can enjoy it without having to rush to finish your book or force your thoughts to change for a project.” — Gavin
“I think projects hurt reading more than help it because they tend to make you look hard for the message behind the book instead of letting it occur to you naturally.” — Samantha
“I liked that we didn’t have a project afterwards because now I have more time to read another book and stay on track.” — Gianna
“I would have been so focused on the project and trying to prepare for it, I wouldn’t have had as much fun.” — Trevor
“I think projects hurt personal reading because I want to read a book to enjoy it, not prove to someone that I read it. I like reading on my own, for myself, not for a project.” — Maggie
“It was a good thing that there was no project after. When there is a project, students are so worried about the information they have to find for it, it takes away from the reading enjoyment” — Drew
“Personally, I believe that projects added to reading books takes away from the original purpose of reading. When I read a book that has a project paired with it, I feel like I read for no purpose; I only read so I can get through the story. In the end, I don’t really take anything away from stories that involve projects.” — Darren
At this point, I can’t resist splashing a few words.
Words they associated with reading projects: stressful, rush, force, hurt, prepare, prove, worried, no purpose, get through
Words they associated with reading: enjoy, occur naturally, more time, on track, fun, original purpose
One might question, are these the words of lazy students looking to skate through their day with minimal work and effort? When I hear students expressing an interest in reading their next book and referring to reading as an intrinsically purposeful endeavor, I have to say that no, this is not evasion of work. It’s a sincere interest in reading for pleasure as high school freshmen.
I’m not calling in this article for an end to projects. Projects can allow us to express creativity, see something through from beginning to end (much as we do in a writing process), and they push us to think about our reading differently than we might without them. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that five students advocated for projects, while a few said, almost verbatim, “I’m glad there wasn’t a project because projects are hard.” But by and large, the reflections revealed that we must be careful that we don’t condition students to think first and only of the end result of their reading when they start chapter one, suggesting that reading is merely something we do to help us manufacture a product that will prove our prowess or please the teacher.
Emphasize the journey instead of the destination. Pull back on the projects, and write a letter to the class. Listen to students talk about the experience of reading without the demands of a project, and watch what happens. I think you will be pleased.
Brett Vogelsinger teaches students at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. For ten years, he taught eighth grade, where he practically memorized The Outsiders (yes, he can tell you the exact page reference of the quote “things are rough all over”), and he recently completed his first year teaching ninth grade where he hopes to do the same with To Kill a Mockingbird. He is passionate about fostering the independent reading lives of his students through an ever-expanding classroom library. He maintains a class website and tweets at @theVogelman.