Sunday, March 4, 2012

Offer Choice: Share a Story - Shape a Future Campaign

 This blog entry is my contribution to the
 Share a Story - Shape a Future 2012 campaign.  Our theme is creating a culture of reading.

As a new reading teacher I spent many years trying to help discover the love of the written word.  After all, I LOVE to read.  If I love to read my students should love to read.  It makes sense, doesn't it?

Then, reality hit. 

I'd pull out my favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, students were bored.  I'd preteach themes, I'd focus on the historical context, I would provide more and more background material of the author to try and enhance the building action.  Nothing worked.  I knew that I loved these books - surely I'd be able to convince the kids that they should love these books too.   If it was my job to teach students to read deeply and with greater meaning, I was failing miserably.

If you are a teacher you know how it feels.  You know that this piece is a classic and you want a student to love it as much as you do.  You feel the engagement of the student slipping away.  What made it worse, is that as I worked so hard to help them read the books I loved, our class environment started to slip. 

I was perplexed, but I marched into my classroom sure that I'd get students to love classic literature.  It wasn't until I was reading with my son Garrett that I realized what the problem was.

See, and this is an embarrassing thing to admit, Garrett hated to read.    Yes, my own child hated to read.  I did everything right with him.  I read to him, we played when we read, I provided tons of books, but he hated reading.

One day, as we read a short story assigned by his first grade teacher, he said the most profound thing I'd ever heard.

"I want to read about tractors."

I know, it doesn't seem profound, but it really was.

I realized that it wasn't that he didn't like to read, he just hated what he was assigned to read.  I had a light bulb moment. I might be teaching Juniors, but they were feeling the same thing he was.  They wanted choice. 

The next day I created my first reading inventory.  I asked students to choose book topics.  I found that my students liked to read things like Sports Illustrated, USA Today,  and enjoyed topics that I'd never have chosen.  I explained to the class that I'd let them have choices in what we read, if they promised to read excerpts from some of the classics that I felt they'd need when they went to college.

It didn't take long before I realized my reluctant readers were reading.  Even some of the most adamant about not reading could find something they liked to read when they had choice.  I made a rule that I would not offer up any judgement on what they read, instead I allowed them determine their own reading materials.  Our reading workshop discussion became more interesting with the variety of discussion topics.  Students quickly became more engaged and were more likely to try a book out of their comfort zone if a friend had read it.

It took me a few years to perfect the choice option.  I'd look at the reading list provided by the district, choose a couple of books that we'd read together, and give them choices for anything else.

Another added benefit, is that after they realized I valued their choice, they began to value my choices.  While they might not have hung on every word of Lord of the Flies, the students were more attentive.  I noticed the fluency rates of the students increased as they read more and more. They were reading more, so of course their reading improved.  As the years went by, new students became more involved in the classroom discussions.  As they read more, I became more practiced at discussing multiple books.  We were all learning together and enjoying the journey along the way.

Fifteen years later, research has proven that giving students choice is a great way to increase a student's love of reading. 

For me, choice has become the mantra of my teaching.  Students are more engaged, our class discussions became more vibrant and purposeful, and a new generation of readers walkout of my classroom.

 In the end, we were all learners, teachers and participants in the process. 

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