Friday, October 19, 2012

One third of my ninth grade class reports never finishing a book in middle school

I do not want to be one of those teachers who says, "My students never read a book until I inspired them, and now they love reading!"  I don't think I'm particularly inspiring, and I know that many of my students are never going to LOVE reading.  Nevertheless, I am going to report a conversation my students and I had in one of my ninth grade classes yesterday.

After my ninth graders read their free-choice books for 30 minutes (yesterday was a 70-minute block), I asked them to discuss with a neighbor how the reading in class was going, how it compared with reading at home, and when they had first started to enjoy reading.  After a couple of minutes I let them share out if they wanted to. The sharing led to a pretty interesting ten-minute discussion of reading in general, and for the first time in this class a number of kids talked openly about how little they had read for much of their lives.

First it came out that about half of the students much preferred reading in school to reading at home, because in school there weren't nearly as many distractions.  Of course, the other half of the students preferred reading at home for exactly the same reason!

Then about six kids talked about how and why they had first started to read.  Every story had the same structure: "Until I was in __th grade, I hated reading.  It was hard for me, I was bad at it, and I hated it.  Then in ___the grade I read _________, and that book made me like reading.  Now I still don't like reading just anything, but if I get a book I like, I'll read right through it."  The grade at which these epiphanies occurred varied, but for every one of the six kids who talked, the epiphany had happened in fifth grade or later.  Three of the kids said they had never enjoyed reading at all until this year--one of them after taking a summer literacy class that did a lot of in-class independent reading and two of them after finding books they liked in the first month of school in my class..

One of those kids, who said he had never really enjoyed a book until he read John Green's Paper Towns (he's now in the middle of The Fault in Our Stars  and liking it less), said that in fact he had, during the two years he spent in middle school (he went to BB&N), never finished a whole book.  I was surprised, and someone else said, "Me too."  I pressed them, but they asserted that this was true.  I heard other rumblings, so I said, Okay, raise your hand if you didn't finish a single whole book in middle school.  A third of the class raised their hands.

Could they possibly be telling the truth?  I told this story to a few of my colleagues, and one of them couldn't believe it.  I myself think it's plausible.  They didn't say they hadn't ever read a book, only that over those two years they had never finished a book.  If the class is structured in a traditional way, with a lot of emphasis on whole-class texts, and if teachers don't pay close attention to what kids are reading independently, with a significant amount done in class, then it is pretty easy for students to get away without reading much.

Again, I am not telling this story because I think that trying to create a culture of reading is going to make these kids love reading.  Many of them will probably still not like it very much.  But I do think there is a lot of room for improvement if a third of the students in that class can have gotten through the last two years without finishing a single book.  To change that all you have to do is give them quiet time and books to read.

Beyond the issue of whether students are reading or not, there lies another, deeper issue: sometimes I'm not even sure that having kids read more is going to help them that much.  That's why the question that a colleague of mine recently asked--How do we measure the effects of what we're doing?--is so haunting.  Even if our students read five times as much this year as last year, and even if it makes a real difference to them, how will we know?

I'll try to hold off on worrying that until another time.  For now, I'm just going to be happy that most of my students seem to be enjoying the reading they're doing in class.

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