March is reading month! Yes, it is, and it is also the month heading into “Assessment Season.” In schools across Michigan, the anxiety is palpable. Teachers have painstakingly organized and prepared celebrations to honor one of the greatest forms of communication this world has ever seen (many thanks to Gutenberg and his little press). Yet, the underlying tension remains as celebration collides with expectation. The implementation of new standards and new assessments has raised literacy expectations for our students. The myth of “The Fourth Grade Shift” has been debunked and teachers of all disciplines must consider literacy as the lens through which they teach (more on that later in this series).
Increased expectations, a shifting evaluation system, a negative public perception of teachers, political in-fighting at the expense of students and teachers—no wonder every teacher that I talk with is feeling overwhelmed. With all of the initiatives swirling in our heads, on what do we choose to focus?
Whether you are a teacher, an administrator, a coach, or a parent, I invite you to step away with me to take a “Balcony View.” What exactly do I mean by Balcony View? According to the work of Adaptive Schools:
“The balcony view is a third perceptual position, a macrocentric perspective, in which with compassion and detachment we try to understand the nature of the situation the group is in at the moment. It is with this view, looking down upon the group, that we gain the most knowledge about our group, the group’s interactions, and ourselves.” (Adaptive Schools www.thinkingcollaborative.com).
Think about it as removing yourself (ego) from the situation in order to gain new perspectives. By taking this Balcony View, I’d like to explore what really works in terms of Reading. Let all of the other “stuff” fall away for the moment. In this series, we will consider such topics as: Independent Reading, Guided Reading, Close and Critical Reading, and Disciplinary Literacy.
As you step to the balcony (make it an ocean view with a warm tropical breeze), ask yourself, “What is something that I know works for my students?” And then require yourself to provide evidence. “What makes me say that?”
This week’s topic: Independent Reading.
Teachers, do not be afraid to let your students read in class.
Time and time again, teachers turn to me and express feelings of guilt when their students are reading independently in class. “I don’t feel like I’m teaching. What am I supposed to do?” “We don’t have time. There’s too much to cover.” “What about the students who fake read or goof off during this time?”
These concerns are legitimate. Yet, the truth remains. The more kids read the smarter they get. Volume of reading is the most important factor in increasing vocabulary, which we know is key to success in learning, and it is the most important factor in developing cognitive skills.
Providing time to read is a non-negotiable.
So, with that in mind, let’s debunk some of those common misconceptions about independent reading in the classroom.
Myth #1: “We don’t have time. There’s too much to cover.”
“Covering” implies surface. Surface level teaching and learning is not going to benefit anyone. With the expectations for depth of thinking these days, it is imperative that we spend time on those things that we know impact student achievement the most. And independent reading is one of those things.
Myth #2: “I’m not really ‘teaching’ during this time.”
One of the ways to convey the importance of independent reading is by modeling the behavior yourself. Yes, I know – this seems indulgent. Not only am I not “teaching,” I’m reading myself. Don’t feel guilty. It’s a practice based on research. Keep your own independent reading log to model that for students.
In addition, conducting short conferences with your students is essential. In the beginning of the year, this is a significant opportunity to get to know your students as readers and to set goals with them. As the year progresses, this becomes a significant time to assess and to evaluate on the spot, to teach, and to reflect on goal setting. Tip: Conference more often with your struggling readers.
Myth #3: “Students just fake read or goof off during this time.”
Let’s talk about “just-right books.” Students do not want to fake read. Students want to succeed. However, students need a success experience in order to know what that feels like in terms of their reading identity. That means they need a book at their level—a “just-right book.” If the book is too difficult, your reader will give up. The links below provide resources for teaching students to choose meaningfully.
- https://www.engageny.org/sites/default/files/resource/attachments/independentreading6-8.pdf (Check out pages 8-9 for the “just-right” tools.)
In talking to my fourth grade son about this post, he said, “Mom, make sure to tell the teachers that we need to talk about our books. I like when my friends recommend books to me. I also like when I hear about books that win awards.” Weekly, sign students up to conduct book talks, where they share their reading with partners, small groups or the whole class. Post lists of recommended books and award winners. Most importantly, provide opportunities for kids to share what they are reading in pictures, in writing, in listening and speaking. Remember that the person in the room doing the most talking is doing the most learning. Let’s make that the kids.
In our next installment, look for an exploration of Close and Critical Reading. Until then, enjoy your view from the balcony!