Breaking From Tradition To Create A Culture Of Reading

Last June, I had the good fortune to address the senior members of our school’s National Honor Society. It was their senior breakfast, one of the last official school events before they would be graduating and moving on.

As I looked out from the podium, it hit me. Four years prior, I was literally the first teacher that 30 of them had in high school. They were the last group that I had taught as freshmen before I had moved on to teach other courses, which, for some of them, forced them to have me for another year or two. I don’t know why it didn’t hit me until I was about to speak, but I led with that.

I remembered two things that I told them during their very first high school class. First, before they would know it, they would be seniors and graduating. It turns out that I was right about four years flying by. Second, I told them that their English class would be the best class that they would ever take.

I am sort of cheating on that last one because I say that to every class. I figure if kids know that I love my subject and my job, they will be more invested.

After the speech, it was time to take pictures and just reminisce with many of the kids. I found myself surrounded with a group of kids from that first period ninth grade class. They brought up our year long vocabulary battle during which they made t-shirts for their teams (Smackdown and Raw) and the epic final battle that determined the winner. They brought up their projects in which they would prove that they read the assigned book or their project about epic heroes. And, they talked about their big argument/debate research paper and trial. It was one of those moments where I was grateful that they enjoyed and remembered what we did.

Then, one young man said, “I loved ninth grade, but when I had you in 11th, it was better.”

“What was the difference?”

I think I already knew the answer that was coming.

“You didn’t make us read something in 11th. You let us choose. In 9th, we had to read Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and A Doll’s House.”

Yup, I knew it.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I got smarter as I got older.”

While that year was a lot of fun and I feel like I helped kids become better writers and know that their voice could make a difference in the world, I know that I didn’t help them to become better readers and, more importantly, love reading.

Isn’t that what we English Teachers should want? Don’t we want to foster a culture of reading that turns out a group of kids who love to read? How is it that elementary students love reading and once they hit the secondary level, the majority of them look at it as punishment?

We can make excuses that today’s technology is a distraction and pulls kids away from reading. We can say that kids don’t have the work ethic. Both of those cop outs and hide the fact that the education industry has not evolved at all. We still give out book logs. We still make kids do 1.2 billion annotations that often leave sticky notes all over book that the actual text cannot be seen. We give “gotcha” quizzes so kids can prove that they read. And, not only is it about proof, it’s about having them spit back what we think is important or what certain passages “really” mean.

As “The Admin” likes to ask, “that’s how we read in real life, right?”

Of course we don’t. Yet, we are forcing kids to do these tasks with books that we prescribe. And, we wonder why many are turned off to reading.

Here’s the thing: Kids will read what they are interested in. Kids will read if they are invested. Kids will read when they don’t have to feel the pressure to spit back information that we perceive as important or what we feel they should get out of a book. Kids will read without reading logs or having to complete those 1.2 billion annotations. Many kids will pick up a book if they don’t have 100 other tasks to do.

So, with all of that in mind, I sought out to continue my evolution as a teacher of reading. I love teaching writing. I love the process, the conversations it inspires, and the product that kids wind up with. I love that they see that their voice can make an impact on the world.

But, teaching reading is a different story.

I like to read, but I know I don’t like to read how we teach it in school. So, over the years, I’ve moved to literature circles and more of student choice. That senior who mentioned 11th grade being better was given the option to choose any book and join a literature circle group. That’s better, but it still required kids to group up. What if a kid didn’t like any choice that others made? But, it was better than what I once did.

This year, I was happy to find out that one of my teaching periods would be with freshmen. This was going to be the year when I do things the way I think would work best for kids. I’ll take chances with reading and see if I can get kids to enjoy it.

On the first day, I made my two proclamations that four years would fly by and that this would be their best class. Then, I asked how many liked to read. Of the 25 in the class, only 10 raised their hands.

Challenge accepted.

After starting the year with my writing workshops and looking at small pieces of writing to analyze as writers, it was time for the them to read a novel. I went to our two book rooms and grabbed five copies of every ninth grade (and other grade levels) text we have.

I came in with the massive amount of books and I heard the groans from the 25. I could read their minds: what is he going to MAKE us read?

“Relax. These aren’t all the same books. You are going to choose what you want to read.”

They were still skeptical. One young man asked the question that everyone had on their mind.

“What are you going to make us do with them?”

I knew what he meant.

“Read them. That’s it.”

More questions: tests? quizzes? notes? sticky notes? Essay? Book Report?

Yes, someone mentioned a book report. I hadn’t heard that in years.

“No, none of that. I trust you and know you will read. I want you to pick a book that you think you would like and just read it like a normal human being. We’ll figure out some sort of project at the end to show you read, but you’ll have a lot of choices. I just want you to read and actually like it.”

With that, they spent the next period and a half doing a book tasting. Basically, they sat in their groups, read a few pages, and wrote down what they thought about the book. Then, they would move on to the next one. Most kids found a book. There were still six without a book. They asked me if they could go to the library and find one. Within 15 minutes, they were back with a book. More importantly, they were excited.

So, here was our deal. I would give them time in class to read during the week. Reading is important and just like writing, class time is important. They would read on their own if they needed or wanted to. Once a week, they would have a book talk with someone else or a group of people, just to talk about what’s going on in the book. That was it for the month. During that time, we worked through more writer’s workshops and looked at poetry together as well. But, reading days were there. Kids were reading. They were doing it and talking about it.

Towards the end of the month, some students were closing in on the finish and asked about the project. So, we took a day to make the assignment together. They came up with a list of great projects like constructing the character’s high school yearbook, making a review blog, making the soundtrack to the book (along with explanations), creating a dinner party narrative with their character and other famous people, writing a narrative about their character’s childhood, writing the character’s college application, illustrating scenes, writing poetry that reflects the book, and making movie recommendations for their character.

In 21 years of teaching, I have never seen a group of high school students more interested in reading and more excited to share their work. They all demonstrated that they read the book. They all showed they could make a connection to their characters, the theme, and to their lives. More importantly, they had fun.

It was a great experience and one that I will repeat. But, there was one thing that was still bothering me. Although I break down literature with our “Do Now” and other short pieces, I am not giving them tools to read a novel more effectively. I was struggling with that and wanted to find a way to demonstrate different methods to tackle reading. More importantly, I wanted to make it authentic and something we could do together, rather than some separate lesson.

As I often do, I will talk to my colleagues about my struggles and need to do something better. I work with some great people. One such person is Lauren Madden. Lauren is one of those people who never slows down. She’s a wife, a mother to four young kids, and one of the best, most natural teachers you will find. She’s the teacher who can teach any grade and any level, from special education to alternative school to advanced placement. And, she never stops doing new things. Yes, she’s one of those.

She’s also one who constantly wants to do better. We often talk and we’ll mention an idea that we might want to try. Usually, 15 minutes later, I have emails with multiple links to research or a color coded calendar to implement a plan. She’s all about making kids more engaged and more active in their learning.

A few weeks back, we were talking about reading. She said, “You know. I wish I could just read a book with kids and have them just read to enjoy and talk about it.”

We had just received a book order that she requested for The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. She requested it because she felt her kids would love it. And, she was gearing up to teach it. She had unit plans for it and had all of the traditional teacher stuff ready to go. But, she wanted kids to have a different motivation to read and to actually like doing so.

My response was simple: “Then do it.”

She gave me a look of disbelief. I continued.

“Seriously, go for it. If you think the kids will dig the book, go for it. Forget about the quizzes and all that. Get kids to enjoy it and take it from there.”

And, then she started to plan. She mentioned starting the book as a read aloud with them. Then, she would give them options of how they will read it: silently, audio, or with her. Once or twice a week, she would have a Socratic seminar to discuss what they had read.

No reading logs.

No quizzes.

No Sticky Notes.

Just reading like human beings. And, just talking about what they read. Of course, she would fill in the skills portions in between reading sessions, pulling small passages and going through them. But, the focus was on her kids reading a great book and simply enjoying it.

That led to me having an idea, but more on that in a minute…

Last week, I walked into her 9th grade class that is a co-teach class. It was a reading day. Lauren was sitting with a group of kids who wanted to read with her. So, she was reading aloud and they would ask questions or talk when they felt the need. There were two groups of students that were reading aloud to each other. They were laughing at some of the language that Alexie uses and putting themselves in his situation. And, there were a few others who were using the audio version and following along, while a few others were reading silently. The next day, I came in and found the class in a circle conducting a student-led Socratic Seminar. They were quoting lines and talking about how it related to their lives.

Here were kids–not advanced level kids–talking about big issues from their reading and relating it to their lives. They were using text evidence, making connections, and, more importantly, enjoying it.

Now, back to my idea…

When Lauren was telling me about the book, it sounded like something my students would love. I hadn’t read the book so I instantly thought that I would read it quick and then get moving, following the same plan as Lauren. Then, I thought of something.

“Maybe, I’ll just read it with them for the first time.”

My brain started churning. Why couldn’t I do that? Wouldn’t that be a way for me to show them how I read, how I attack vocabulary, and how I make connections? I can do live modeling without any preconceptions and allow student connections to be my guide. I would be teaching a book without any way to force my beliefs on them. We talked out my plan and I decided to do it. Maybe some magic would happen.

So, I told my class that we’ll be reading a book together, one that I have never read.

Again, they were skeptical. I like skepticism.

“You really never read it?”

“How come we can’t choose our own book again?”

Two good questions.

“I promise I never read it and this time we are going to experiment with a text together and see what sense we can make from it. It’s us and the book. We are equals in this. We’ll both be learning at the same time.”

When I told them the title of the book, they all smiled. They heard that “Madden’s class” was reading it and loved it. They were in. We were ready.

I decided that I would read aloud to them to start, that way I could model. The rules were simple: stop me whenever you have a question or comment. And, I would do the same.

We stopped at the first sentence: “I was born with water on the brain.”

We wanted to know what that meant so one young man looked it up on his phone. We heard it and moved on. On page two, he said he had 42 teeth, which, he claimed were “ten too many.”

A kid asked, “Armida, is that true?”

We spent a few minutes trying to count our own teeth until someone finally looked up how many teeth your are supposed to have in your mouth (he was right, 32).

At this point, I was getting a little nervous. We weren’t at the point of making deep connections and we were getting bogged down. But, they were all interested so I kept reading. Sometimes, fear can make you give up on an idea too soon. If you believe in an idea and that it will benefit kids, follow through. I believed.

They loved the voice of the narrator, as he wrote things in such an informal, conversational way. They laughed a few times. I kept reading.

Then, it happened.

Page 5.

“Armida, he is starting each sentence with ‘I draw because…’ Why is he doing that?”


I asked if anyone had ideas.

“It’s important. You said whenever a writer repeats things, it’s important. Drawing is important to him.”

Another student, “Obviously, there’s drawings all over the book.”

Another student,”But, you can tell he is trying to make a point. He’s saying that drawing is the most powerful way to communicate. Language doesn’t get in the way.”

Magic from a 9th grader.

Kids agreed and continued talking. I chimed in when they were done and told them that the writing technique is called anaphora. We spent a couple of minutes going over why writers use that. Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail came up as an example.

This is why we read books. We read to have conversations, to make connections, and to talk about deep issues.

It happened again the next time we read when Alexie wrote that he didn’t intend to hit his teacher with a book. Immediately a student said, “Intentions don’t matter.” A debate sprung from there.

From here, we’ll move from me reading aloud to giving the kids options. I can see that some want them. One young man is sitting quietly, reading far ahead. That’s awesome. A bunch asked me if they could read at home because they are liking it. That’s incredible. And, I hear them talking about it as I walk into the room.

It’s funny. I’m not assigning it to them and they aren’t getting a grade for it. Yet, they are choosing to read on their own.

We’ll run through some Socratic Seminars and we will make a final project idea together too. I firmly believe that they are all in because they know it’s about the reading and about their analysis, not my prescribed unit plan to get them to a point. They are thinking. They are interacting with the text. They are employing strategies to understand. I am trying to model those as a first time reader as well. That was my mission in choosing this book that I haven’t read.

Some may argue that kids need to read the classics and it is the education system’s responsibility to teach them. There’s two responses to that. First, it is the education system’s responsibility to teach kids skills to read all types of media. Skills are our content. That’s all. Secondly, if we foster a culture of reading, I can guarantee you that kids will choose classics.

How do I know this? This year alone, some of my 9th graders have chosen Beowulf, Of Mice And Men, The Crucible, along with more contemporary choices like 13 Reasons Why, Freedom Writers, and The Glass Castle.

If we want kids to become better readers, we must give them choice. We must give them freedom to make their own connections. We must allow them to discuss what they’ve read in a meaningful way. We must give them opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in multiple forms. We must give opportunities for them to read. And, we must model for them in an authentic way.

All of this can be done if we can break away from the traditional, outdated practices and create a culture where students can be allowed to enjoy reading.

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