By Kate Flowers
One of the things I love most about teaching is that it constantly offers us new beginnings. Every semester is a chance to reinvent ourselves, our teaching, and our classrooms. Few professions offer this opportunity for reinvention, and all around me I see brilliant educators embrace it again and again.
It doesn’t need to be huge. Tom Newkirk recommends changing just 5 percent of your teaching each year, shifting slowly toward research-based practices we know are good for kids.
My 5 percent has revolved around independent reading, which is the focus of my research as a Heinemann Fellow. My question is, What accountability measures for independent reading promote reflection, motivation, and the growth of a robust reading habit in young adult readers? I want my students to develop a reading life, and I want an effective way to help them do this.
If you’re a high school teacher like me and are thinking about your own 5 percent, and you’re open to a suggestion, let me offer this one, which has had so much impact on my students’ learning: give your students ten minutes in class every day to read a book they’ve chosen, a book they want to read.
I know it’s hard to give up that ten minutes. It means you will have to cut something, most likely something important. But over the last few years, I’ve become convinced the most important outcome of my class is whether it actually turns my students into self-identified readers and writers. I want them to own their reading and writing lives. And they are never going to do that if they never have the experience of choosing their own reading books and their own writing topics.
For me, carving out this time, and focusing much of my class on students’ independent reading, meant letting go of the whole-class novel. I won’t lie: this was hard. Like many of us, I was drawn to teaching English in large part because I love literature, because books transformed and saved my life. Teaching literature, I thought, was my job.
I have since come to revise my job description. I teach kids. I teach literacy. Over my twenty years in the classroom, I’ve come to accept that it is rare, if not impossible, that one novel will appeal to students whose reading levels, in my freshmen classes, typically range from third grade to college. I’ve come to accept that teaching the whole-class novel promotes bad habits I can’t support: fake reading and learned helplessness.
Many people disagree. I too worry that moving away from the whole-class novel may deprive students of important cultural literacy. I worry it may impact some students of color, as well as some underprivileged students, more negatively than more privileged students, because they may miss allusions and references that can help them gain access to selective colleges and universities. This hasn’t been an easy decision, but each semester I am more and more convinced it is the right thing to do for my students.
As important as cultural literacy is, it is not more important than personal literacy. The whole-class novel is often something that students may not be able to read without our support, since it may be far removed from their interests and lives. In a noble effort to help all students understand and appreciate a single canonical text, we fall into bad habits: reading every word out loud in class, spoon-feeding them summaries and synopses, and quizzing and testing and threatening, all the while lamenting that our student just won’t read. And perhaps worse, we make all our in-class writing revolve around that canonical text. This is what I did for the first fifteen years of my teaching career.
If our students are to maintain an ongoing connection to their independent reading, they need to make it a habit. While some of my students come to my freshman and senior English classes with strong independent reading habits, most do not. While I am clear with my students that I expect them to do two and a half hours of reading outside class a week, I am fully aware that for a significant percentage, at least at first, that isn’t going to happen. The best chance my nonreaders and dormant readers have to develop a reading habit is to actually read. In these ten minutes of class, I can assure this is happening.
In recent years, I’ve moved to teaching only a few whole-class novels, and this year, I may only do plays: Much Ado about Nothing with my freshmen and Hamlet with my seniors, because I just can’t let Shakespeare go, and not just because Shakespeare is so important for cultural literacy. His plays make us more human, and our kids need that too.
This past week, I’ve been grading my students’ first semester portfolios, where they’ve compiled their writing and their semester independent reading assessment, called a reading ladder. Believe it or not, this is my data, the most important information I have to answer my research question. And it’s good stuff. Over and over again, many of my seniors reported they read more this semester than in all the previous years of high school combined. My students are well into the journey of owning their reading lives.
So, as you embark on this New Year, what’s your 5 percent? What questions in your teaching do you want to answer? I invite you to join me. We are all teacher researchers, and the questions, as well as the answers, are all around us. It’s part of the fun of teaching. Here’s to a great 2017!
Kate Flowers is an English teacher at Santa Clara High School and Teacher Consultant at the San Jose Area Writing Project. Kate focuses on engaging students in a joyful and vigorous classroom, filled with authentic writing and reading opportunities. She works to adapt progressive practices to work for students in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, across different socioeconomic communities.