From the Classroom: How do we challenge students as readers—and ourselves?
Like most English teachers, one of the things I love most about the summer is time to read for pleasure. While my favorite reading spot in the winter is that comfy corner on my sofa, in the summer, nothing beats sitting poolside, the sun warming my face as I escape into another world.
I know many of my students feel the same way, which is why giving students opportunities to read for pleasure during the school year and during the summer is so valuable. Choice matters. There are too many books in the world for students to be limited by the choices their teachers make for them.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that teachers are trying to limit students’ experiences. After all, the foundation of our work is to broaden our students’ horizons. And when we assign this book or that, it’s usually because we believe that the texts we choose will do exactly that—broaden their experiences—especially if it’s a text students might not otherwise choose for themselves.
But what if, instead of choosing a specific title for students to read, what if we encouraged them to broaden their horizons by making choices for themselves. Two years ago, I created the visual below and shared it with my students.With the summer upon us, and as we begin reflecting on what we might do differently next year, I thought sharing this visual might serve as a humble reminder of the ways we can encourage our students to grow as readers.
Although most of our summer reading lists have been finalized and posted, I share this visual list for two reasons.
First, I think it’s a good reminder of the ways we can encourage students to make choices that broaden their horizons, that grow their reading trees (to mix metaphors). Like many of you, I have students who are voracious readers. We recognize these students immediately: their head is always in a book, and they can quote lines from their favorite authors in their sleep. When you ask these students about their favorite books, they have too many to count.
I’m always curious what shaped these students into the readers they are. When I ask, they often talk about their experiences reading in the summer, unbound and free. When I eavesdrop on conversations in my classroom, I hear similar sentiments: “I can’t wait for the summer so I finally have time to read again.” What if we could open up their summer reading choices to make space for the books that students want to read? What if a summer reading assignment didn’t list texts but asked students to choose three reading challenges and choose the texts that would help them meet those challenges?
Even if your school’s summer reading assignments don’t include choice this year, how might you use a list like this in the fall? What if this list—or the many others available just by Googling—became a loose framework for how students could grow their reading lives? Maybe some of the suggestions might be teacher-chosen, whole-class texts, but many more others could be driven by students’ choices.
Second, I share this list because it’s also a reminder for ourselves as readers and to challenge ourselves as readers, too. Like many of you, I know that I’m constantly trying to put new books in my students’ hands, especially books I think might push them a bit outside their comfort zone. But if I expect my students to stretch themselves, we need to be models for them. When I look at this list of reading challenges, I wonder how my stack of summer reading books challenges me—or if, like many students, I’m just reading inside my comfort zone.
So in the spirit of challenging myself, here are three books I’m reading this summer that I think will push me a little bit. And in the fall, my book talks will begin with these texts and how and why I chose them.
Reading Challenge #3: Be Daring
I am not a huge fan of science fiction and my fantasy titles have been more or less limited to the Harry Potter series. But because we use the PA Young Reader’s Choice List for our incoming 9th grade summer reading, there are a few science fiction and fantasy titles I’ll be diving into. One early favorite among our incoming 9th graders is Neal Shusterman’s Scythe, a story set in a post-mortality world where humans have finally conquered death. As a result, members of the designated “scythe” keep the population under control. While it’s not the light “beach” reading I’m used to, I’m interested to see where this goes… especially as it’s a series.
Another genre I don’t typically read is science writing. But because I’m looking for more non-fiction to introduce to my juniors, and because it’s come highly recommended from many fellow teachers, I’ll also be reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Reading Challenge #8: Read an Award Winner
I have been meaning to read the National Book Award winner The Underground Railroad ever since it was published last year. It’s one of those books that’s been sitting by my bedside, waiting to be opened. But during the school year, I never found myself in the right “space” for the book, emotionally or intellectually. This summer, as I find time to wind down, I’m hoping to find that “space” to explore and engage with Colson Whitehead’s novel.
Reading Challenge #13: Embrace Your Inner Child
I might be the last teacher in the world to admit this, but I have never read Wonder. As a secondary teacher, it’s not a book that many of my students read as high schoolers, but it is one that I know that many of them have read in elementary school—and loved. A few weeks ago, my fourth-grade son came home telling me about the novel (his teacher began reading aloud the first few chapters), and now that he’s finishing it this summer, I think I’ll embrace my inner child and read it alongside him.
So there’s just a few of the titles I’m reading this summer. How about you? What are you reading this summer? How will stretch your own reading life and help students to do the same?
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature, AP English Language & Composition, and the AP Capstone program at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. In addition to being a PAWLP Co-Director, she is also a 2016-18 Heinemann Fellow. She can be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia and her website, triciaebarvia.org.