The Power of Choice and Time by Beth Jarzabek
For the past sixteen years, I have had the pleasure to teach Language Arts Lab to middle school students — a class that one of my former students quite aptly described as “Reading for kids who hate to read.” This is true … for the most part. My kids are typically those who struggle, those who have had a less than positive experience with books and reading, those who have convinced themselves that they just aren’t readers.
Each and every year, I promise my kids that by the end of our time together they will find at least one book that they like (quite possibly love) and each and every year I am right.
I don’t have a crystal ball or magic formula to determine the future and the fact that at least one text will reach each one of my students by the end of the year. Nor do I have a “one size fits all” factor that will determine which book will reach what child in the short amount of time that we spend together. What I do know from the time that I have spent with these reluctant readers — two things: choice and time.
So often, our students are limited by a plethora of factors. They are told that they cannot read a particular book because the Lexile is too high (or too low), that there is no AR test available, or that they have read too many of “that kind of book.” It seems counterintuitive that we expect our students to develop their identities as readers, but don’t trust them to make their own selections. At the start of each year when I inform students that there are no limits on their reading selection, there is an audible sigh of relief. This same declaration would be cause for gasps of horror from some of my colleagues who would declare that “These kids are just going to read the ‘easy’ books!” or “What if all they read are those graphic novels.” To this I say “So What?!” As adults, we have no limits on our Amazon accounts that warn that the book we are about to purchase is below our established reading ability or that what is in our cart is too similar to previous purchases.
To facilitate this idea within my classroom, I abide by the following tenants:
*Read what you like –— In my classroom, students are encouraged to read the genres and authors that they enjoy, as well as re-read old tried and true favorites. By giving my students the autonomy to choose what books to explore during our time together, I am giving them the ability to learn who they are as readers instead of forcing them into a box constructed out of levels and page numbers.
*Abandon what you don’t –— Part of developing one’s identity as a reader is determining what you enjoy reading … and what you don’t. Students are allowed and encouraged to abandon books that they may have discovered are not the right fit for them. In our “Book Chats,”I often tell my students about books I have abandoned. I am brutally honest about both the book and as myself as a reader, citing reasons such as “This one sounded a lot better than it is!” or “I have way too much going on right now to focus on this book!” Determining what they don’t like and moving on allows students to find their potential favorite.
As teachers, time is a hot commodity. We are crunched for time to get curriculum covered before state testing, to get “that lesson” finished before the end of the week, and to get grades submitted before the end of the quarter. While we frequently feel like the White Rabbit frantically dashing through the pages of Alice in Wonderland, I argue that for those of us trying to build a culture of reading, the minutes spent focused on the following are imperative:
Time to read in class – Almost every day at the beginning of class, I carve our 8-10 minutes for the both myself and my students to read. While this time has not reached the ideal status of “Every Child, Every Day”, I have noticed a significant, positive impact. Students are excited to come in and read. Books are being taken out faster than in previous years when independent reading was something done at home. While 8-10 minutes may seem like both a miniscule and a mountainous time to concede for such a task, it is important to remember that for some kids….this is the only time that they are going to spend independently reading….but it is that much more time than they would have spent otherwise.
Time to talk about (and hear about) books – At least twice a week in my classroom, we carve out time to briefly talk about what we are reading. Sometimes this takes place in informal conversations sparked by a passage or an event. Other times we stage a “One Minute Book Chat” a la Pernille Ripp, where student make themselves “cheat sheets” on notecards and chat with classmates about their books, switching partners when the allotted time is up. On other occasions I may pull up a trailer or read part of the first chapter of a new addition to our classroom library in order to spark interest. No matter what form these conversations take place, one thing remains consistent … students get excited about books. At the end of each of these activities, library trips are requested, book exchanges promised, and waiting lists written. Any time spent creating this much fervor is to me time very well spent.
While these ideas may seem absurd to some, I have seen the power of both within my classroom walls. Fostering a true love of reading within our students, especially reluctant readers comes from allowing them to find their own reading identities. This comes not from logs, levels, and limits, but instead through choice, voice, and time.
Beth Jarzabek is a middle school teacher in Western Massachusetts who is lucky to explore books with 7th and 8th grade students in her Language Arts Lab classes and facilitates the creation of brilliant projects in her Genius Hour classes.
She earned a B.A. in Psychology and Education from Mount Holyoke College, as well as an MAET in the Teaching of English from Western New England University. She is currently in her final semester of her Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership degree at Mount Holyoke.
Beth resides in Ludlow, Massachusetts, with her sassy teenage daughter, Amelia and her husband, Michael, a fellow “Book Nerd” and her stalwart support system.