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Fall Semester Reflection #1: Reading

Snoopy Readingfavicon It’s Finals Week, so that means that instead of helping my students with their exams and projects, I’m thinking about ways to improve my teaching next semester.

Topic #1: Reading.

I must say, I’m a tad obsessed with reading. It sort of makes me crazy, actually. My general feeling about reading is that everybody says it’s important but nobody does it anymore.

In To Read or Not to Read (2007), the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that 15- to 24-year-olds read an average of 7 minutes a day.

When I wrote my AP English syllabus in August, I decided that my students and I would study 12 books this year. That’s a lot, but I did the math: If students read 20 pages a day, six days a week, we could get there.

It just hasn’t happened. I mean, we’ve studied six novels so far. But it’s pretty clear that all my students haven’t really read them closely (if at all). Here’s why:

1. My students don’t yet read consistently on their own. They might read on Monday but then skip Tuesday. We need to build daily habits.

2. If the book is difficult, my students read really slowly. I can’t fault them for this. If I want them to study the books and annotate them, I must meet them where they are.

3. When you’re overloaded with work, reading always comes last. If I’m a student and have three hours of homework, most likely I’m going to put reading off until the end (when I’m most tired).

It’s pretty easy for me to figure out what’s going wrong about reading, but it’s really hard to figure out how to make things better. But I do have some ideas. I’d like to hear yours, too. Here are mine for next semester:

1. Read four books (more) closely, rather than six superficially. My fear is that I’m lowering the standard and that my students will follow suit and read even less. But I was looking at The Scarlet Letter today (which we’re reading in January), and no normal person can actually understand that in two weeks. After all, “physiognomy” and “ignominious” are run-of-the-mill words in the novel.

2. Require reading and evidence of reading every night. This semester, I broke up the reading into chunks — sort of like college — and told students to make their own schedules. Wrong! If my students don’t yet read every night, I must force it on them. But the question is how. I’m not interested in reading quizzes or thought journals. Annotations work for students who do them, not for ones who don’t (or who fake them). In addition, I don’t want to have to check their reading every day (including weekends). I’ll have to think more about this.

3. Spend more time in class reading and talking about reading. This semester, I focused on writing, especially on Mondays, when we did AP test practice essays. If I’m going to make progress with reading, I’m going to have to devote much more class time to it. I just don’t know exactly how.

4. Build the social aspect of reading. This semester, I tried online video chats to promote reading, especially on weekends. But the technology just didn’t work well enough. So my latest idea is to do more in-class group activities with the books and to do regular one-on-one conferences with my students on their reading.

Please let me know what you think — and if you have ideas. favicon

8 comments

  1. Nate

    #3!!! Reading together in class helps meet most of your goals- it helps you and the students read more closely- and have discussions that come from a common experience of reading together while building the social aspect of reading.

    When we did AMSTU after you at IHS, we did a mostly in-class reading of Grapes of Wrath, but used a wide range of “reading” techniques- some chapters lent themselves to socratic seminars (ch 5, 12, 14) Others lent themselves to visual art (ch #1, ch# 29)… while some lent themselves to performance art- “Word for Word” style re-enactments (ch 7, 9,scenes from 22) We’d usually do a chapter in class together, and a chapter overnight as homework- with a variety of activities thrown in, and a healthy dose of Great Depression history, we spent 3-4 weeks on the book. This was one of my favorite units of the year!

  2. Mark Isero

    Thank you, Nate! I totally agree with you. The typical notion of rigor in English class = More reading as homework, less reading in class. But reading together builds the social aspect as well as teaches close reading. I still wonder, though: How did you get through The Grapes of Wrath in 3-4 weeks? That’s a big book! (Go AmStu!)

    • Nate

      The double-block periods definitely helped! (and remember that AmStu was scheduled as History and English together- so we dedicated a substantial amount of “History” time to the project. I’ve got samples of student work from that- including student created “Cover Art” for the book (with artist notes)… Creative writing assignments of writing the “missing chapter” from the book, and audio tapes of end of book seminar discussions. Let me know if any of that would be useful to you!

  3. Leora

    Isero! I’ve been thinking a lot about this down here in LA (although not as much as you…:)).

    I’m wondering less about what is going on in your classroom and more about collaboration/inter/multidisciplinary work—in between your classroom and your colleagues’. How are your colleagues supporting the literacy lunge you are taking? Albeit that it is not a direct strategy, perhaps PBLing and streamlining the love for reading across disciplines will reinforce your message…I fear if you are the only one singing the song, well, kiddos may be less likely to listen to the folk singer than the orchestra (ie-then it becomes less of Crazy Isero’s message and more Whoa LHS is Going Reading Crazy message!). This might also speak to #1’s analysis about not reading one your own.

    Last unsolicited thought-wondering about how your kiddos are seeing literacy as a needed skill in the workplace. What are some work based learning experiences that make the reading come alive with relevancy? Or professionals collaborating with you/your students to bring higher stakes (ie: industry/outside world)and leverage to why reading skills are so vital…?

    And YES for #1—depth over breadth…I remember my ole’ CT telling me similar words in 2006…

    • Mark Isero

      You’re right on point, Leora! My school is definitely Crazy Isero Town sometimes. We started off the year doing some good whole-school literacy stuff, but that has since slowed down because of the daily difficulties of our work. Tackling reading — and really encouraging students and teachers to read fiction and nonfiction, teacher-assigned and independent, gobs and gobs of it — is a huge endeavor. I think it’s becoming my next chapter. Your CT was wise! 🙂

  4. John at TestSoup

    My thoughts:

    1) You might have to have them read certain books like the Scarlet Letter, but if you don’t, then ditch the old stuff that your students will have trouble identifying with and find something more contemporary. Just cuz it’s new doesn’t mean it ain’t got no value. Or something.

    2) It’s too bad you can give them all e-readers that would report to you how long they had them on and how many pages they read at what rate… Maybe someday, right?

    3) I think this is where you’re really onto something. Maybe try “flipping” your classroom so they do the reading in class with a brief lecture and then do the classwork at home?

    4) Something I’d suggest to see if people read: go around the room and have people summarize what they read. Jump from one person to another randomly every few sentences of the recap. This way you’d quickly see who actually read (and who was paying attention).

    I am always impressed at how hard you work to make your class succeed. It’s teachers like you that make me consider becoming one.

    • Mark Isero

      Thanks, John. I’m definitely going to make reading more public next semester by doing more reading in class (along with activities). As far as ditching The Scarlet Letter, it’s an AP class, so “old stuff” is sort of required. (Plus, I like The Scarlet Letter.) Thanks so much for your comment.

  5. John at TestSoup

    I don’t mean to rag on the Scarlet Letter. Just suggesting that maybe the reason many kids don’t read these days is because they thing “reading” is synonymous with “slowly plodding through old books that they don’t really get.”

Please share your brilliant insights!