English teachers, tell me if you’ve seen this happen. You plan to start the period with a round of silent reading. 15-20 minutes of bliss, right? Everyone is quiet, minds are active, worlds are expanding, knowledge is building. Until you look at their reading journals and see that they are pretty much empty.
Working with two remedial English classes this year, it became clear by Winter Break that if I didn’t change this pattern quickly, my students would actually hate reading more than they already did. Having been an avid reader since about age 5, I’ve had to work to understand my students’ relationships with books, but I have gotten the sense that they feel a period of silent reading is like a period of falling into an abyss.
Imagine starting every class period falling into an abyss. Not a good way to kick things off.
In December I asked both classes, “What would you guys think if the whole class read the same book at the same time? What if we had the choice to read it out loud, to listen to it on CD, or to read it silently?” And both classes were all for it.
Raiding the school library, I found out that two killer YA novels were available — Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Each class voted for a book to read — one picked Rumble Fish and the other picked Speak. So when we returned from Winter Break, we plunged in. As luck would have it, I found an audio version of Speak for students to listen to in class, but Rumble Fish is old and obscure enough that we had to read it out loud.
In any case, both approaches with auditory learning have worked fairly well. When I ask students to take notes or answer questions about a section, they’ve been on track. Much more so than they seemed to be when they were reading silently. So I was surprised today when about half of my first period class asked if they could do today’s Rumble Fish reading silently. The rest of the class seemed on board, so we went for it.
I was ASTONISHED. They read it. They totally read it! On their own. Silently! And completely! I didn’t have to stop them even once for being off task. We were breaking classroom behavior records all over the place.
Then came the best part:
When one student finished reading his assignment he said, “Ms. Thompson, can I finish reading this book at home?” To which I responded, “Of course!” Then he said, “Does this author have any other books like this?”And I said, “YES! The Outsiders is amazing.” He asked what it was about and THEN (get this!), one of my most reluctant students chimed in and gave an impromptu summary of The Outsiders, like we were at a book group meeting or something.
I am still so amazed by this that I’m laughing with joy as I write.
The first student said, “Can I go to the library right now to get a copy of The Outsiders?” to which I responded with so much enthusiasm that I probably scared him. I told him that his response was one of the most important things that’s ever happened to me as a teacher. And I sent him to the library.
Since we’ve moved through Rumble Fish so quickly, the class agreed that they wanted to try and finish The Outsiders before the end of the semester in a few weeks. As I write these words, I can hardly believe them. A transformation has happened. They are still reluctant when it comes to grammar lessons and writing. But they have found an author that they connect with, and we are making progress. They are having a positive experience with a book, and I feel like all of our lives have been changed because of it.
The students who are reading Speak have also surprised me in wonderful ways, but that is a story for another time. Please keep reading (however sporadic my posts are), and please share any stories, questions or suggestions you have about struggling readers.