From the Classroom: How do we build our students’ readerly lives?
By Tricia Ebarvia
A few years ago, I read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, and since then, I’ve had to ask myself some tough questions about how and why I teach literature. This passage, in particular, continues to haunt me:
Shouldn’t schools be the place where students interact with interesting books? Shouldn’t the faculty have an ongoing, laser-like commitment to put good books in our students’ hands? Shouldn’t this be a front-burner issue at all times?
As many teachers know, it’s nearly impossible to find time to do more, especially with increasing curricular demands and testing mandates. But at the end of the day, we make time for what matters. Period.
Moreover, we send a message to our students about what matters by how we spend our time in class. If it’s something worth doing, it’s worth taking class time to do. Is reading for pleasure something students should only do on their own time? What message does that send? If it’s not important enough to do in class, why would it be important enough for students to do on their own? Reading—and building our students’ readerly lives—should be at the center of our classrooms.
And there is no readerly life without choice and opportunity.
So as I write this, my ninth graders and I are in Day 7 of our inaugural Read-A-Thon—ten straight days of “non-stop” reading. After finishing a unit on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I decided to give students the choice and opportunity to read independently. Thus, our Read-A-Thon was born.
If I was going to take class time to do this, I wanted to do it right. What did that mean? For me, it came down to three things:
Our time had to be productive.
Students had to be ready to read, books in hand. My students have been keeping “on deck” reading lists for the entire year, so I framed the Read-A-Thon as a chance to cross some titles off their lists. Leading up to our Read-A-Thon, I also book-talked several new titles and invited our school librarian into my classroom to do the same. My goal was to give students so many suggestions that it would be impossible for them not to have many high-interest titles from which to choose.
On the first day of our Read-A-Thon, I also asked students to write down their personal goals for this time. In particular, I asked them to think about a concrete goal (how many pages or books they wanted to read) as well as a reading goal (visualizing the characters, maintaining focus, reading other genres, etc.). By setting a personal, authentic goal for themselves, students could keep track of their own progress and evaluate their success when we finished.
We focused on the pleasure of reading.
I had the opportunity to see Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm speak at NCTE last November. They spoke on the importance of reading for pleasure, and that to read for pleasure, students need to become immersed in their reading. When we ask students to stop reading in order to complete journal entries or answer study guide questions, do we interrupt that immersive experience? Certainly these activities have their place and their value, but there is also a value to reading for reading’s sake—reading for the immersive experience. (Their latest book, Reading Unbound, goes into greater detail on this.)
So what did this mean in the context of our Read-A-Thon? It meant that I tried to minimize “interruptions” to their reading. Instead of writing lengthy journal entries each day, students simply turned in a 3×5 card with a noteworthy passage from their book on one side and a brief reflection on the other. We’ll do more extended writing later—and these notecards will come in handy—but for now, I wanted the focus to be on maintaining that “flow” reading experience.
(I should also note that for any independent reading assignment, I rarely tell students what they cannot read. I guide students, but I always give them as much freedom as I can. They spend most of the year reading what I tell them; this is their chance to choose.)
We made reading a celebration.
This was critical. I wanted to make the Read-A-Thon feel like a true celebration, to make it special and memorable. And what celebration doesn’t include food? So students signed up to bring in food and drink each day. On the first day of the Read-A-Thon, our wonderful librarian passed out specially made bookmarks, just for us. Every day, we celebrate each time someone finishes a book by updating our tally board at the front of the classroom. And for some added fun, we’ve been having a daily raffle for some small prizes (I used their 3×5 cards from each day as the “raffle tickets”). Never underestimate the value of a sheet of scratch and sniff stickers, even to a 15-year-old.
Finally, to celebrate our reading beyond the classroom walls, when we finish, each student will create a poster highlighting their book(s). Each poster will include nothing more than the passage from a book (taken from one of their notecards) and a QR code. To find out where the passage was from and to learn more about the book, students would simply scan the QR code, which would then bring up more information about the book. Below are two examples.
So how are we doing? Well, as of this posting, my students have read almost 80 books in the last week, with two days to go. That’s 80 books that would have gone unread. But more importantly, each of those 80 books was another step a student took to becoming more informed and empowered reader.
Those are important steps.
How do you build your students’ readerly lives? What’s worked? What difficulties have you faced? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She is currently writing daily as part of the “Slice of Life” challenge at her website, mrsEbarvia.com. She can also be found on twitter @triciaebarvia.