In the past week I’ve read two completely oppositional articles on teaching. The first was “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools” by Jeremy Miller. It is a superb piece providing a disturbing, real, and moving view of the specifics of legislation that has made Kaplan such a player in the schools, the sad realities of testing, teaching, and more. The second was “Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” This is a very different sort of article, Mokoto Rich is a reporter for the New York Times, not a teacher, and so she comes to this topic quite differently — following a teacher as she begins this “new” method in her classroom — children choosing their own reading material.
The method is one of choice — individual reading rather than the whole-class-reads-one book method. It isn’t, for all Rich suggests it is, new. It was around when I started teaching in the early 70s and was around even earlier among those with a progressive mindset. Choice is at the heart of Montessori, open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and many other pedagogies that have waxed and waned in popularity over the years. I’m glad Rich featured Nancie Atwell, someone who inspired me twenty years ago with her seminal book, In the Middle. She, along with others, gave me some excellent tools that helped me to fine-tune a method I already had been using — now known as readers’ workshop.
A few years after that I spent a summer at Princeton studying classical children’s literature. I came back to my classroom determined to bring some of that magic into my teaching. Since then other experiences have helped me to continually refine how I teach reading. At the moment, in broad sweeps (leaving out the specific lessons that I do), here’s an overview:
- Independent Reading. My students are all expected to always have a book they’ve chosen to read. The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night. I monitor the reading by having the children write the book title and the pages read. I can easily determine how their reading is going by those pages. If a child is only reading ten pages in 30 minutes night after night, for example, something is wrong and I will investigate. I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do. Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons. I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs). All the stuff mentioned in Rich’s article and many other places.
- Reading Aloud. I always am reading aloud a book, ideally one the kids can’t get themselves yet. Last year I read The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me before they were published, for example. I’m still mulling over the first book for this year.
- One Book for the Whole Class. I do believe in occasionally reading a book together. I think that there can be a very special experience when a group comes together over a book. And I have to say, I don’t get the vehemence some have against doing this. While I understand how it has been done badly, it can also be wonderful. I mean, what about those communities that read books together? Book groups? Book clubs? Why can’t teachers orchestrate something similar in their classrooms? Certainly, I hope I do. We begin the year with Charlotte’s Web and end it with The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful experiences.
- Group Books. We do a study of historical fiction prior to the kids writing their own. As part of the preparations I have the kids read books in small groups.
- Research. Sometimes I think people are so invested in getting kids to love reading that they forget that there is all kinds of reading. Sometimes it is to get information. My students read widely when working on their historical fiction stories about Mayflower passengers. They read primary sources, secondary sources, all sorts of stuff.
Okay. I could go on, but I won’t. Reading is so many different things to so many different people so it stands to reason there would be many different ways to teach it and many different ways to learn it.