Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creating a culture of reading: posters, stickers, and gold stars

(Too much non-literacy stuff on this blog recently, so here's a quick one about reading:)

I. The Chart
Last week I followed the example of a colleague and put up a chart on which my ninth class could chart its independent reading.  The chart is a "Reading Tree"--I drew the outline of a big tree trunk, or its lower section, on a piece of big paper.  The trunk will be filled in with stickers.  Each kid in the class will, every couple of weeks, get one small round sticker for every 50 pages he or she has read.  They will write their initials on their stickers, and then apply the stickers to the tree trunk.  AS the trunk fills over the course of the year, we can add more paper above, and the tree will "grow." We will maybe also draw some branches on the tree and put up leaves, each bearing the title of a completed book, but we haven't gotten to that yet.

I felt a little funny drawing up the chart and buying the stickers--it seemed more appropriate to a first grade classroom than to high school.  I'm somewhat self-conscious about my own position of authority in the classroom, and I feared that my students would look on it with the disdain that low-wage employees might have for a morale-raising program that involved stickers rather than more material rewards.  Even now, having put the chart up and doled out the first round of stickers, I feel ambivalent. The homely chart now sits on the wall of my classroom, looking kind of forgotten.

I had pretty low expectations, and I almost didn't get around to doing it, and even now I can't quite believe I'm using stickers as a way to try to boost morale--but I had told my students I would, and they kept bringing it up, so I finally did it--and, to use a John Green-style typography, when I did finally do it, IT WENT INCREDIBLY WELL!

II. Some student reactions during the process

"How many stickers do I get?"

                                                 "Does the summer reading count?"

"Oh, I like the blue ones--they're prettier!"

                                                                   "How did you get so many stickers?"

"This is so fun--I love stickers."

                                         "Look, she got so many!"

"I'm going to get more next time!" 

                "Hey, check out our tree!" 


III. Takeaways?
Overall, it was amazing and a little disconcerting.  I have never before aimed for this kind of simple, sweet, cheerleading tone in my classes.  I have always had an edge of irony, and I've always expected kids to be somewhat ironical as well--because I always was.  When I was a kid, I never took the earnestness of teachers seriously.  That does not mean that some of my earnest teachers weren't excellent teachers, even for me, but I was not at all prepared for the (apparent) success of the sticker chart.

What does this experience mean?  It means, for me, I must learn to do wholeheartedly the kind of teaching that I really believe in--I've known for years that irony was cheap, but I could never embrace teaching in complete earnest.  I think it's time.  For all of us, I think it means that we have an amazing amount of control over the reading culture that we create, and that teachers can create high expectations and reward student effort and achievement without formal lessons, without explicit instruction, and without using grades as a club.

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